Thursday, October 10, 2019

What's the Deal With: Poppers?

Image result for poppers aids

The inhalant alkyl nitrite class of drugs, commonly known as "poppers", are most famous for their use as a sexual stimulant among gay men but they were originally prescribed to treat angina/chest pain in heart disease patients.  They work by smoothing the muscles around the body's blood vessels, including most notably, the anus and vagina.  Hence their use as a sexual aid.  They also provide a head rush that lasts about 10-20 seconds.  They're sold under the guise of "nail polish remover," "tape head cleaner" & other such things that are, of course, not for human consumption.  They're sold in sex shops under suggestive names like Ram, Rush, Man Scent & Jungle Juice which belies their actual use.

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Vintage ad for poppers

But not all poppers are created equal.  There are many different varieties, some more potent or toxic than others.  Amyl nitrite was the popper du jour in the 1970s, while today you're more likely to encounter pentyl, isobutyl, isopropyl or butyl nitrite due to the scheduling of the original Amyl version.  According to some studies, the isopropyl variety can cause serious eye damage in the form of maculopathy, and accidental ingestion of any popper can cause lipoid pneumonia & other potentially fatal outcomes like cyanosis.  More common side effects of sniffing poppers can include pounding headaches, dizziness, erectile dysfunction (temporary) and nose bleeds. 

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Variety of popper brands

So why would anyone want to risk all that for a short-lived rush?  The same reason a tobacco user starts using the most addictive drug in the world--one that doesn't even get you high & has a good chance of causing disease & early death:  because they like how it makes them feel.  Because others in their peer group are using it.  Because it's part of the culture they belong to & they want to know what it's like.  Overall, poppers are less harmful than many other recreational drugs so long as you don't combine them with erectile dysfunction drugs like Viagra or have pre-existing diseases like glaucoma or heart disease.  The risk of physical dependence & addiction is relatively low as well. 

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Another retro popper ad from a gay mag

For a short time in the early '80s, the CDC & other health agencies suspected a bad batch of poppers as a possible cause of AIDS.  But that was quickly discarded when the HIV virus was discovered.  Still, the abuse of inhibition-lowering drugs like poppers, MDMA & cocaine can indirectly increase the risk of acquiring the virus as well as other STDs like Human Herpes Virus-8, which causes Kaposi's Sarcoma in AIDS patients with compromised immune systems.  Indeed, these men living in the "fast lane"--taking recreational drugs & partying nightly, going to bed with multiple anonymous partners every week--were the first to acquire the disease & die, signaling the tip of a very large iceberg.  And according to, the vasodilating effects of poppers might make HIV & other STD transmission more likely too. 

But blaming a drug...ANY drug...for the acquiring of a deadly disease is scapegoating at best.  Using the substance is a choice, as is having unprotected sex (with a stranger outside a monogamous relationship at that).  Many choices must be made along the way before one can make the connection between Point A (poppers) and Point B (AIDS).  Drugs don't make decisions; people do.  Various countries have banned certain poppers.  For instance, Japan & Canada have made a blanket ban on all forms while the EU has outlawed only the isobutyl nitrite variety.  The UK has also called for bans but ultimately decided they didn't fall within the scope of the Psychoactive Substances Act.  In the U.S. the law is more hazy:  all alkyl nitrites have been banned except for "commercial use," defined as any use other than producing a high in humans.  Hmph.  

What more is there to say on the subject?  Be safe, be aware & use moderation as you would with any other substance.  Never ingest (swallow) poppers & don't forgo protection while under their influence if using them for sexual enhancement.  And have a gay ol' time!  

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