Poppers, amyl, leather polish, anal relaxant, jungle juice—whatever you want to call the stuff—smells like paint thinner and feels like a kick to the head. But for a while there in my early 20s I couldn’t get enough and now every time my synapses misfire or my short-term memory pulls a blank, I wonder: how much long-term damage did I do? And what was that stuff?
Poppers are small bottles of amyl nitrite, which belongs to a class of chemicals known as alkyl nitrites. It was first synthesised in 1844 by a French chemist named Antoine Balard, who observed that the chemical relaxed smooth muscles and dilated arteries, which briefly led to its use as a remedy for angina—a cardiac condition caused by reduced blood flow to the heart.
These days its purposes aren’t so medicinal. Sex shops typically sell small bottles of the stuff under colourful misnomers like TNT, Thrust, or Ram, and the contents are almost always labelled innocuously—as air freshener or vinyl cleaner. But no one’s using Thrust to shine their shoes. By and large, people are huffing poppers in clubs, basements and bedrooms to get high and increase sexual pleasure.
Perhaps more so than any other substance, the bodily sensation of an amyl high can be described as a “rush.” Blood surges to the head and the loins and the brain swims with dizzy, throbbing vibrations. Which makes sense when Dr Aifric Boylan, Australian GP and CEO of online doctor service Qoctor, explains the feeling has everything to do with amyl’s effect on your circulation.
“Amyl nitrite causes the smooth muscle in the walls of blood vessels to relax, increasing blood flow to the body,” she explained over the phone. “This can lead to physical and mental effects which tend to last just a few minutes—including a sense of euphoria, increased sex drive, reduced inhibitions, increased skin sensitivity, as well as relaxation of the walls of the anus and vagina.”
Amyl isn’t all sunshine, rainbows, and loosened arseholes though. The relaxation of smooth muscle in the body can also lead to a bevy of not-so-pleasant side effects, including headaches, chest pain, nose bleeds and temporary erectile dysfunction.
“It is not thought that amyl leads to many long-term issues, but there are some short-term risks,” Dr Boylan says. “It is possible to develop an allergic reaction over time. Another rare but serious complication is methaemoglobinaemia, which means the blood becomes unable to carry oxygen. This can be life threatening, and it happens when a person swallows rather than inhales poppers.”
She’s not wrong. You might recall that a 22-year-old guy died at Rainbow Serpent in January 2017 after drinking poppers. But short of drinking the liquid, most of the problems associated with amyl use stem from pre-existing conditions or the presence of other drugs.
“If a person is susceptible to glaucoma—a condition involving raised pressure in the eyes—amyl can make it worse. And if a person has heart or circulation problems, the unpredictable changes in blood pressure can cause them to become seriously unwell. And if a person is on treatment for erectile dysfunction, such as Viagra, poppers can also cause seriously low blood pressure which may lead to stroke.”
As with any recreational substance, it pays to be circumspect. Don’t go too hard, and try not to mix the drug with anything that’s going to exacerbate its effects.
But does doing that make poppers safe in moderation? In short: kind of, maybe. It depends on the sniffer, and there’s always going to be some people who have worse reactions than others. But at the very least, it’s worth noting there’s no evidence to suggest occasionally huffing amyl causes brain damage
“It’s certainly less harmful than many other recreational drugs, and doesn’t lead to physical dependence,” says Dr Boylan. “Although some people may experience unpleasant side effects with minimal use or other unforeseen consequences relating to their behaviour while taking the drug.
“As with any recreational drug, its effects can be unpredictable for an individual.”
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