What Are Poppers? Risks, Side Effects Explained As FDA Reports Spike in Deaths

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned people not to use alkyl nitrites drugs, commonly known as poppers, after it noticed a rise in deaths and hospitalizations.

The agency warned the drugs are associated with "serious risks" including death. The reports the FDA received involved people suffering from severe headaches, dizziness, spikes in body temperature, breathing problems, extreme drops in blood pressure, issues with blood oxygen, and brain death after the drugs were inhaled or ingested. The advisory did not provide numbers on how many cases had been reported.

Below is what you need to know about poppers and the FDA warning.

What Are Poppers?

"Poppers" is the slang name for alkyl nitrites. These drugs come in liquid form and are sold in 10 to 40 milliliter bottles that look like energy shots. They are commonly marketed as nail polish remover or cleaning products.

They have been used to treat people suffering from chest pains caused by angina, with their name coming from the action of popping open glass capsules.

People generally take poppers, which smell strongly of solvents, by sniffing them. They might do this straight out of the bottle, or douse absorbent material and sniff that. Although they are liquid, poppers aren't generally drunk as this causes the body to absorb chemicals faster, which can heighten the risk of taking them.

Taking poppers increases blood flow, and can make a person feel euphoric, and give the sensation of a head-rush. The high generally lasts a few minutes.

They can also boost sex drive, make skin more sensitive, and relax the anus and vagina, which is why some people take them before sex. For this reason, poppers are commonly associated with gay culture.

While some say poppers can give them more intense erections and orgasms, it can have the opposite effect on others.

Other common unwanted side-effects of poppers include feeling nauseous, becoming uncoordinated, nosebleeds, headaches, and chest pains.

According to the FDA, poppers are sold online and in adult novelty stores, with names like "Jungle Juice," "Extreme Formula," "HardWare," "Quick Silver," "Super RUSH," "Super RUSH Nail Polish Remover" and "Premium Ironhorse.'

What Has the FDA Said About Poppers?

On June 24, the FDA issued an advisory telling consumers not to buy or take poppers because they can cause serious adverse health effects, including death, when ingested or inhaled. It said nitrates should only be ingested or inhaled under the guidance of a health care professional. Those who own them should stop using them and throw them out.

Anyone experiencing an illness after using the products should contact their health care provider immediately, the FDA said. Also contact your health care provider if you have used poppers are worried about your health.

Following the spike in deaths and hospitalizations, the FDA said it would: "continue tracking reports of adverse events resulting from the ingestion or inhalation of nitrite 'poppers' and will take appropriate actions to protect the public health. The agency also has contacted its federal partners alerting them of the recent adverse event reports."

Diane Calello, executive and medical director of the New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, told Newsweek the advisory makes sense from a health and safety standpoint, as poppers can cause serious health effects when used.

"But poppers are very popular. So additional advice on how to safely use would be a useful addition to harm reduction here," she said.

How Have People Reacted?

The FDA's announcement attracted the attention of LGBTQ publications like Out magazine and The Advocate, who relayed the agency's warning on Monday.

Due to the nature of poppers being used before sex, people on Twitter poked fun at the advisory.

Loosen up FDA! Poppers help with that. https://t.co/gCEYQAmTMV

— JaggedLittleNick (@JaggedLittleNik) July 7, 2021

I'm blaming the FDA for the sex shop only having two kinds of poppers yesterday

— vooduude (@vooduude) July 7, 2021

FOIA machine: Plz send all texts, emails, memos and hand written notes regarding the @US_FDA coming for poppers days after PRIDE 2021 ended. Thx, sniff, bye. https://t.co/Z1i7OnJtSr

— Paul Detrick (@PaulDetrick) July 7, 2021

However the risks are real. Dr. Gregory M. Taylor, assistant professor of clinical emergency medicine at Indiana University School of Medicine in Indianapolis, told Healthline some people who take poppers may not be aware of what they are or the possible risks, or confuse them with energy drinks.

Taylor recently published a case study on a 69-year-old man who took poppers and ended up in an intensive care unit. He was suffering from dizziness, headache and fatigue. The case was published in the journal Oxford Medical Case Reports.

Taylor told Healthline: "If our patient [in the case study] hadn't come in until the next day, he may have already suffered brain damage and died."

Calello warned users against combining poppers with other sexual enhancement compounds, such as sildenafil, which can cause blood pressure to drop dangerously low.
She told Healthline that while poppers do not have known long-term side effects, "of course a cardiac arrest or other organ damage can leave a lasting mark."

Calello said: "So don't take the chance. Consumers should just heed the warnings to immediately discontinue use."

This article has been updated with comment from Diane Calello.

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A stock images shows a collection of bottles. Poppers are commonly sold in small bottles, sometimes with colorful labelling. Getty Images