Trusted Content

New Club Drug: Poppers

Dr. Alan Weiner MD

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Alan Weiner, MD

February 25, 2019

As a club drug, poppers usually come packaged as tiny vials of liquid that release a vapor when “popped” open. When inhaled, the psychoactive effects are instantaneous, powerful, and, for some people, intensely psychologically addicting.

The term “poppers” refers to a group of drugs related to the chemical class alkyl nitrite. Its traditional form as a recreational substance is amyl nitrite, although recently a number of other variations have burst onto the scene, such as isobutyl nitrite and isopropyl nitrite.

Since its discovery in 1844, amyl nitrite has been known to be a powerful vasodilator, which means that it increases blood flow by relaxing the smooth muscles that make up blood vessel walls, causing the vessels to expand. For this reason, the substance was originally used to treat angina, a painful condition caused by limited blood flow to the heart, although other drugs have since replaced it in this capacity.

Unfortunately, the same traits that made amyl nitrite a medically useful vasodilator have also made poppers a go-to substance for individuals seeking a powerful high. Indeed, since the mid-twentieth century, recreational use of poppers has far outpaced their use in medicine. We can trace this use back to the 1970s when poppers became popular among gay and bisexual men as a quick and easy way to enhance sexual pleasure. Since then, the drug has increased in popularity and spread to a more general audience of club goers and pleasure seekers.

While there has been no research to suggest that poppers are physically addictive or that using them leads to withdrawal symptoms, they have been proven to carry a risk of heavy psychological dependence, especially when abused in the long term. For many individuals, this comes in the form of an inability to perform sexually unless one has inhaled the drug. Whatever form dependence takes, any repeated, habitual abuse of poppers comes with potentially hazardous side effects.

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Short-Term Effects

The short-term effects of poppers usually last only two to five minutes, and include feelings of giddiness or a dizzy rush to the head, relaxed muscles, a sense of slowed-down time, and enhanced sexual pleasure. Potential negative effects include painful headaches, chemical burns if the liquid touches one’s skin, and potentially fatal interactions with other vasodilators such as Viagra and Cialis. That last side effect is an especially dangerous outcome, given the tendency to use poppers in sexual situations.

Long-Term Effects

One particularly troubling effect of popper abuse that has come to light in the last few years is its ability to cause severe visual problems, especially with repeated use. Another can be found in a recent study that suggests long-term use of nitrite poppers may lead to increased chances of developing tumors later in life, and may even speed up the growth rate of already existing tumors. Finally, many substances out there today that are being marketed as traditional poppers contain other dangerous inhalants such as acetone and gasoline. When used as “huffing” drugs, substances like these have been proven to cause severe neurological damage both in the short and long term.

Treatment For Nitrite Inhalant Addiction

It is important to emphasize that dependence on nitrite poppers is mostly of a psychological, rather than physical, nature. Because there is no physical basis to the addiction or any obvious withdrawal symptom, treating popper dependence is in many ways, is more complex than treating addiction to a substance like heroin or methamphetamine. Very often it involves therapy or counseling in an inpatient treatment facility, with the goal being to dig deep into one’s psyche to find the underlying psychological or emotional cause driving one to the popper high, such as sexual abuse or dysfunction. Just because the dependence isn’t physically rooted, doesn’t mean it lacks a very real and deep-seated source.

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If you or a loved one abuses poppers and is showing signs of dependence, contact us today at Uncovering the root cause of popper dependence is no small feat, but with our help, the road to sobriety may start today.

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