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The Truth About Poppers in The Gay Community

Many gay and bisexual men use poppers as a euphoric sex-drug: The nitrate-based inhalants provide an intense and disorienting rush of sensation that helps relax involuntary muscles in the throat and anus, assisting with oral and anal sex.

History in The Gay Community

Popper is a slang term given broadly to drugs of the chemical class called alkyl nitrites that are inhaled. Most widely sold products include the original isoamyl nitrite or isopentyl nitrite, and isopropyl nitrite. Isobutyl nitrite was also used until it was banned by the European Union. In some countries, poppers are labeled or packaged as room deodorizers, leather polish, or tape head cleaner–to evade anti-drug legislation.

Popper use has a relaxation effect on involuntary smooth muscles, such as those in the throat and anus. It is used for practical purposes to facilitate anal sex by increasing blood flow and relaxing sphincter muscles.

“If you trace the bottle of amyl (a type of alkyl nitrite) through late 20th century history, you trace the legacies of gay culture on popular culture in the 20th century.” – Dr. Lucy Robinson, Sussex University

Historian Dr. Lucy Robinson confirms what gays have long known about the history of poppers: they have appeared in numerous gay dance scenes throughout the 20th century, including discos, raves, and nightclubs. Their disorienting effects alter light and sound, making dancers feel euphoric and free, if only for a few seconds. They were also cheap, easy to carry around and easy to use without detection.

The drug is also used or for recreational drug purposes, typically for the “high” or “rush” that the drug can create.

Poppers were part of club culture from the mid-1970s disco scene and returned to popularity in the 1980s and 1990s rave scene.  If you go on any popular gay app such as Grindr and Jack’d you’ll be approached by someone selling the drugs.

Dangers of Poppers

The Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy says there is an insignificant hazard associated with inhalation of alkyl nitrites, and British governmental guidance on the relative harmfulness of alkyl nitrites places them among the less harmful of recreational drugs.

Swallowing poppers (rather than inhaling the vapor) may cause cyanosis, unconsciousness, coma, and complications leading to death. 

Isopropyl nitrite poppers may damage your eyes. Some studies have concluded that there may be an increased risk for at least temporary retinal damage with habitual popper use in certain users; in a letter to the New England Journal of Medicine,  an ophthalmologist described four cases in which recreational users of poppers suffered temporary changes in vision. More permanent damage has been reported in habitual popper users.

In June 2014,  eye doctors reported having noticed an increase in vision loss in chronic popper users in the United Kingdom associated with isopropyl nitrite (substitute for isobutyl nitrite which was banned in 2007). In November 2014, it was observed maculopathy is a rare complication of isopropyl nitrite abuse. The good news is the patients’ vision was restored after they stopped using the drugs.

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