What are Nitrites or poppers?
Poppers, alkyl nitrites, amyls, amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite, isobutyl nitrite, isopropyl nitrite, hardware, liquid gold, locker room, ram, rock hard, rush, snapper, stag, stud, thrust, TNT
Nitrites or poppers are yellow liquids which are inhaled for their intoxicating effects. In the UK they are usually sold in a small bottle – see image below. They may be inhaled directly from the bottle or from a cloth or cigarette dipped into the liquid.
Nitrites tend to have a sweet odour when fresh but this tends to turn to a ‘dirty socks’ smell when stale. The drug will go stale quickly once the bottle has been opened.
Effects start almost immediately after inhalation but only last a few minutes. Poppers work by increasing blood flow to the heart (hence their original medical use in the treatment of angina). This causes the user to experience a ‘high’ as their heartbeat quickens and blood rushes to their head.
Poppers are also reported to improve the sexual experience. People using nitrites for sexual pleasure often report a prolonged sensation of orgasm and prevention of premature ejaculation, although some men have also reported problems achieving an erection. Nitrites also relax the anal muscles making anal intercourse easier. The fact that some people use nitrites for sexual pleasure may make it more difficult to practice safer sex whilst high.
A pounding headache, dizziness, nausea, a slowed down sense of time and a feeling of lightheadedness are commonly reported effects.
“The first time I was 18. I was out dancing with friends and took a short breath in and it felt fantastic. It’s very acceptable in the places I go. But they do have side effects, one of which is feeling very nauseous shortly after you’ve taken them. And yes I’ve thrown up once or twice after taking poppers.”
Users can lose consciousness especially if they are engaged in vigorous physical activity such as dancing or running. Nitrite use has also led to heart attacks when people already have heart or blood pressure problems. There have been cases of fatalities when people have drunk nitrites rather than inhaling the vapours.
Nitrites also increase pressure on the eyeball and are dangerous for people to use if they have glaucoma.
Nitrites are often used in combination with other drugs. Some people say they help boost drug effects but any combination of drugs can be dangerous and lead to unpredictable effects. Regular use can result in people experiencing skin problems around the nose and lips.
Regular users may also find tolerance develops and that use of nitrites no longer brings on a high. Long term use may lead to psychological dependence but there are no reports of physical dependence or withdrawal symptoms.
According to statistics from the Office of National Statistics published March 2022, in England and Wales between 2001 and 2020, alkyl nitrites were mentioned on the death certificates of 25 deaths.
Some people have linked the use of nitrites to the development of a rare cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma, one of the earliest symptoms of AIDS in those gay men who are HIV positive. However, the evidence for this link is not established.
- Poppers are highly flammable liquids so do not use near flames or lit cigarettes.
- Try not to let any of the liquid come into contact with skin as it may cause a rash
- Do not mix with other drugs as the effects can be unpredictable
- NEVER swallow poppers
In the UK, it is largely isopropyl nitrite which is sold in sex shops, pubs, clubs, market stalls and sometimes tobacconists or clothes shops. The drug generally retails from about £1 to £5 a bottle.
Nitrites have now become more widely used than just in the gay community, especially among teenagers. According to Home Office prevalence statistics published in 2017, 0.5% of adults 16-59 and 2% of 16-24 year olds had used amyl nitrites in 2016/17. In subsequent Drug misuse statistics no questions were included on the use of amyl nitrite.
Amyl nitrite was discovered in 1857 and used to ease chest pains (angina) by dilating the blood vessels to allow greater volumes of blood to be delivered to the heart. It originally came in small glass capsules that were ‘popped’ open – hence the name ‘poppers’. However, this form of the drug is now rarely found in the UK. In recent years amyl nitrite has been replaced by other medicines and its only remaining medical use is as an antidote for cyanide poisoning.
Nitrites were popular in showbiz circles in the 1950s and as a street drug in America in the 1960s. Butyl nitrite has no medical uses and was originally sold in America as a room odoriser and aphrodisiac.
Nitrites first became popular in the UK on the disco/club scene of the 1970s and then at dance and rave venues in the 1980s and 1990s.
Poppers are not controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act and so it is legal to possess them. However amyl nitrite is controlled under the Medicines Act which means that it is classed as a medicine and so only licensed shops like chemists should sell it. However, many retailers get round this by selling the nitrites as room deodorizers and shoe cleaners or rather than inhalants.
Poppers were given a last minute reprieve from being controlled under the New Psychoactive Substances Act which was brought in during May 2016 to control the former ‘legal highs.’ Home Office minister, Karen Bradley, said she agreed with the report on poppers from the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs that only substances that “directly stimulate or depress the central nervous system are psychoactive”, and should come within the blanket ban on the sale of legal highs. Poppers do not come into that category.
Updated March 2022