As far as drugs go, poppers are considered relatively soft and harmless. The inhalant's origins date back to the 1900s when they were used medically to treat blood flow issues, and since the dawn of disco they've been widely circulated in the gay scene for the sensation they offer during sex. While not much is known about the medical dangers of using poppers, in recent years there have been increased reports about users experiencing impaired vision. In tandem, the legality of the substance has been changing worldwide.
To learn more about the risks behind taking poppers, we contacted a Berlin-based doctor by the name of Peter Kaulen who currently works as an optometrist in the Licterfelde-West area of the city. The majority of the patients he treats are male.
THUMP: Dr. Kaulen, when did your patients first describe problems with their vision after using poppers?
Dr. Kaulen: I had the first cases around eight or nine years ago.
What was the severity of most of these cases like?
Most people who came in only had a little bit of trouble with their vision. Only about 10-20% of the cases had severe disabilities in their sight.
In layman's term, how exactly can poppers harm your vision?
It probably has to do with a reaction in the metabolism of your photo receptors and the cells in your eyes that perceive light. Poppers can destroy these cells. How exactly this happens we don't know yet.
Can poppers actually make you go blind?
There have been some individual cases, though it's rare. But I have had patients who can no longer work because they couldn't focus on their screen.
Reports of vision problems caused by consumption of poppers have increased recently. Would you say there are actually more cases than before?
No I wouldn't. The amount of cases has remained the same over the last four to five years. Patients are becoming more attentive to the symptoms, so maybe more doctors are hearing about it and reporting it. Nevertheless, it remains a relatively unknown disease among eye doctors.
Do you think lack of awareness is causing greater risk then?
No. Medical questions relating to drugs and sex can often be understood in some way because they are able to bring upon a visible change in one's behavior.
What can users do if symptoms do occur?
There is no rational therapy for it yet because the mechanism for which it occurs has yet to be established. Also there are so few cases at the moment that there isn't a scientific study yet for us to use. If possible, you should just not take poppers, because I have seen periods of improvements with my patients who stop using.
There are also about 50 different variations of poppers on the market now, all with very different compounds. If you're going to take them, you should try to not take the new substances that are not so insanely strong they'll make your lips and fingers turn blue. These new substances are produced in basement laboratories and are not certified according to government standards. Nobody knows exactly what is in them.