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So what exactly are poppers?

Explaining poppers - what they are and what they do

Adam Lusher
Friday 27 May 2016 13:05 BST

Crawley Police have seized a batch of poppers thinking – incorrectly – that they were covered by the new blanket ban on legal highs. But what exactly are poppers? For the benefit of Crawley police officers and others, The Independent offers this guide.

What are poppers?

They are substances in the group of chemicals known as alkyl nitrites. Originally amyl nitrites were used. Now isopropyl nitrite tends to be more common. Poppers are usually sold in small bottles, in the form of liquids that produce a vapour that can be inhaled.

Where are they sold?

It’s not just head shops and online. They can be found for sale in some joke shops, as well as sex shops, and occasionally in pubs tobacconists, music stores, and clothes shops. For prices starting at about £3.50 a bottle.

And what do they do?

They open blood vessels, increase blood flow, and frequently reduce blood pressure while increasing heart rate. Users often report getting warm sensations and flushed faces. They get a dizzying ‘head-rush’, a sort of high in other words.

So doesn’t that mean Crawley police got it right the first time: they are a ‘legal high’ and should be banned under the Government’s Psychoactive Substances Act?

Apparently it all depends on what you mean by “a psychoactive effect”. The new law bans the sale of anything “capable of creating a psychoactive effect”. There are exemptions for food, alcohol, nicotine and caffeine, but the Government initially thought poppers would be covered by the ban.

Then Tory MP Crispin Blunt – and a lot of other people – said banning poppers would be “fantastically stupid”. So the Government got the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACDM) to look at the issue.


In its “first bespoke piece of advice on alkyl nitrites”, The ACDM suggested that poppers were outside the scope of the ban because it defined a psychoactive effect as having a direct action on the brain.

And poppers, the ACMD ruled, had only an indirect effect on the brain, because their direct action was to increase blood flow: “The effects of poppers on blood vessels in the brain should be considered to be ‘peripheral’ as these lie outside the blood-brain barrier”.

So poppers stayed outside the scope of the ban and remained legal.

So why might people (including a law-abiding Tory MP like Crispin Blunt) take them?

Well, they were first used to treat angina. Although that was in 1867.

OK, so what are they widely used for now?

According to the labels on the bottles, “room odorisor”, video head cleaner, nail polish remover and boot cleaner.


They have been used recreationally since the 1970s and they’re labelled for other uses because it is illegal to advertise them as for human consumption.

As well as giving a head rush, they also relax muscles in the vagina and anal sphincter. So some users take them, in the words of the ACMD’s advice to the Government: “For their muscle relaxing effects, to facilitate anal and vaginal sex. Users claim that poppers help prolong erections and increase libido.”

Thanks for that. Any risks that Tory MPs and others should know about?

There is a small risk of death. The ACMD said that if inhaled or swallowed, poppers could cause methaemoglobinaemia, where an abnormal amount of methemoglobin - a form of haemoglobin - is produced in the blood.

But deaths are pretty rare – just 23 deaths involving poppers, out of the 2,488 fatalities reported to the Volatile Substance Abuse mortality project between 1971 and 2009.

And in 2011 the ACMD reported that there were no plans to ban poppers under the Misuse of Drugs Act because “their misuse is not seen to be capable of having harmful effects sufficient to cause a social problem.”

Although if you have heart or blood pressure problems, poppers can be dangerous because of the way they lower blood pressure and increase heart rate. And for similar reasons, it’s a bad idea to take them with Viagra.

So if I don’t die, what else could happen?

Some people have reported feeling reliant on poppers to perform sexually, but they are not physically addictive. By far the most common unwanted side effect is a pounding headache. They can also make some people feel sick or very dizzy, or even faint.

They can cause chemical burns if you get the liquid on your skin and don’t wash it off with water quickly enough. There are also some reports that poppers can in rare cases cause impaired vision or sight loss, although this may be reversible if you stop using them.

And if you use them heavily you can get crusty yellow skin lesions around your nose, lips, and mouth.

Sounds nice. And what about those rumours that they cause cancer and AIDS?

In the case of gay men using them to enhance sex, the ACMD dismissed claims that poppers might cause Kaposi’s sarcoma (a rare form of cancer) or AIDS, saying there was “no good evidence” to support such allegations.

The ACMD did, however, note that the use of poppers in unprotected anal sex has been associated with increased HIV transmission. It wasn’t clear, though, whether that was because the poppers themselves increased the risk, or because the popper use was combined with more risky sexual practices. The ACMD also said that “These potential concerns are relatively rare.”

Anything else?

They are very flammable. So you should be extremely careful if, as some do, you insist on dipping an unlit cigarette into the bottle and inhaling the poppers through it. There have been cases of people mistakenly lighting up the cigarette and getting burnt.

But you’d have to be pretty stupid to do that, wouldn’t you?

Yes. Or drunk. And the Government hasn’t – yet – banned cigarettes and alcohol. Or poppers.

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