What are poppers?
Poppers is the term for the group of chemicals known as alkyl nitrates that can be inhaled as a vapour through the mouth or nose.
Written by spunout
Fact checked by experts and reviewed by young people.
‘Poppers’ is the term for the group of chemicals known as alkyl nitrates that include amyl nitrite, butyl nitrite and isobutyl nitrite. They come as a clear or straw-coloured liquid in a small bottle or tube. The vapour is inhaled through the mouth or nose.
What are the effects of poppers?
Poppers cause a feeling of light-headedness, giddiness, heat flush or heightened sensual awareness known as a ‘headrush’. Some users may also feel as if time has briefly slowed down. The drug may also cause skin flushing.
The effects fade between two and five minutes after use and can cause headaches in some people when the high wears off.
Poppers increase blood flow and cause smooth muscle relaxation. Inhaling them can relax circular muscles near the openings of the anus or vagina known as sphincters. This is why poppers are often used recreationally before sex.
The risks of using poppers
It is extremely dangerous to swallow poppers. As well as causing throat irritation, nausea, and vomiting, swallowing poppers can lead to your body being unable to absorb oxygen, which can lead to death.
If you or someone you know swallows or aspirates poppers (accidentally breathes the liquid into the lungs), call an ambulance immediately. Find out more about what to do in a drug emergency.
Inhaling poppers leads to a drop in blood pressure and an increased heart rate, so they are not recommended for anyone with heart conditions, abnormal blood pressure, glaucoma or anaemia.
If poppers come into contact with the skin, they can cause a crusty rash and burns. If your skin comes into contact with liquid poppers, you should wash the area with cold water as soon as possible.
Mixing poppers with other drugs
Any time you mix drugs together you take on new risks. Things that affect your risk include the type of drug, the strength of the drug and how much you take.
Mixing poppers with alcohol can increase the risk of reducing the oxygen supply to vital organs, which can lead to unconsciousness and death.
It is particularly risky to mix poppers with medication that controls blood pressure. This includes drugs used to treat erectile dysfunction such as sildenafil (Viagra).
Poppers and the law
Poppers are not an illegal drug, but they do exist in something of a legal ‘grey area,’ meaning it is not clearly defined. They are commonly sold in sex shops in Ireland. In other countries, such as the UK and France, they can be purchased in some bars. However, poppers are generally not marketed as being for human inhalation.
Harm reduction advice
If you choose to take drugs remember:
- Start with a very small test dose and wait at least two hours before taking more.
- Stay with your friends and do not leave anybody who is intoxicated on their own.
- Avoid mixing drugs and alcohol. Every time you mix drugs, including alcohol and prescription medication, you increase the risks.
- Always hydrate with water but don’t drink over a pint an hour.
- If you are dancing, remember to take breaks from dancing and give yourself time to cool down.
- Don’t be afraid to get help if you or a friend become unwell or feel suicidal after using drugs. Call 112 or 999
- Drugs.ie: Online information and support for drug and alcohol use. Includes a national directory of drug and alcohol services
- HSE Drugs, Alcohol, HIV and Sexual Health Helpline: Freephone 1800 459 459
- You can contact Youth Information Chat, an online service that can put you in touch with Youth Information Officers based all around the country, for more general information
- You can also contact the HSE’s Drug and Alcohol Helpline on freephone at 1800 459 459 if you want to discuss your drug use
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