Yes, Poppers Can Kill You

I’m Alexander Cheves. I am a writer, author, and sex educator. My nickname is Beastly. I give adult advice — no question is off-limits. To ask me something, email AskBeastly@gmail.com or send me a message via the Ask Beastly contact form.

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hello beastly,

thank you for taking the time to read my questions and thoughts below. your blog is fantastic and inspiring to read.

my questions for you are about poppers. sorry if this a topic you have discussed before but I wasn’t able to find any posts about it.

I used to be a regular user of poppers. I have never been a drug user but have loved poppers since someone first stuck them under my nose in a darkroom in new york when I was in my 20s. when I lived in berlin a typical friday or saturday night was to pick up a bottle of fresh poppers and head to any number of the cruise bars.

I also used poppers often for jerking-off and sometimes to just get a buzz while I was laying around the house. I also love poppers porn and poppers training videos. I guess you could say poppers are a real turn on for me. I also should state they aren’t a crutch and I’ve had plenty of sex without poppers and can get aroused and climax easily without them, but when bottoming it is much more comfortable for me when I use poppers and I cannot be fisted without them (at least I don’t think I can).

Getting to my question…about two years ago I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and now have to take medication daily for it. Though I haven’t spoken with my doctor about this, my understanding is it is quite dangerous to use poppers while on high blood pressure medicine, somewhat akin to using Viagra with poppers. do you have any information on this? furthermore, I would be interested to know your thoughts in general on poppers?

it has been about two years since I have used poppers in that time i have of course still had plenty of sex though bottoming is less comfortable and i haven’t been fisted. i still watch poppers porn because it is a massive turn on and poppers training videos but i don’t join in anymore. do you have any suggestions on how i can replace that euphoria one gets from poppers during sex and a way to make bottoming and fisting more comfortable?

thank you so much!

Hi poppers pig,

It sounds like you need to talk to a doctor who is aware of everything in your life, including how much you love poppers. I’m not a doctor, so I cannot give medical advice, and since you have a condition that requires medical attention, I don’t feel comfortable suggesting anything in place of poppers.

For readers: Poppers, as they’re collectively (and, frustratingly, individually) called, are small glass bottles that are typically brown or amber-colored and filled with fluids that, when snorted or inhaled, deliver brief, euphoric highs that last anywhere from a few seconds to several minutes. Your face flushes, your body feels warm, and when you’re in the throes of anal sex, your butt muscles will relax. The fisting community loves poppers — they’re generally known to relax sphincter muscles (the butthole) and smooth muscle tissue (the anus), making them great for when you need that extra push to go past the knuckle. 

Poppers increase blood flow, quicken your heart rate, and can sometimes make you feel dizzy. Some poppers fans describe them as enhancing the music of a club and feelings of intimacy. Like many drugs, poppers are illegal in the United States, but the illegality of poppers is a bit moot, since slightly altered versions of illegal compounds (which produce similar and even stronger highs) are widely available. You can buy them in countless sex shops, smoke shops, gay bars, bodegas, and bathhouses across the U.S. and Canada and in many parts of the U.K., and there are hundreds of websites online (of varying credibility) that sell poppers internationally. 

Poppers occupy a legendary place in gay culture and have since the disco era of the ‘70s. Their widespread modern availability has only entrenched their allure and increased their dangers. In 1990, the Anti-Drug Abuse Act came into force and effectively outlawed the commercial sale of poppers in the United States. In 1996, the Medicines Act ruled that retailers selling poppers could be prosecuted in the United Kingdom. These laws, although well-meaning, have been largely criticized as being disastrous for the community that primarily uses poppers — queer men and trans women. Poppers today cannot legally be advertised as poppers in the U.S. so they are sold as “tape head cleaner,” “VHS cleaner,” “solvents,” “room odorizer,” “leather polish,” “cleaners,” or simply “odors.” Being illegal makes them both severely unregulated and widely available — a disastrous mix for public health.

There are no chemicals listed on any bottles, no safety regulations, no instructions — so unless you create your own batch at home (as some gay home chemists do), you have no idea what you’re ingesting or what effects you will experience when you take a hit from a new bottle. You can’t always trust the brand names you recognize (Rush, Blue Boy, Amsterdam, and so on) as many of them are fake

It’s generally maintained that poppers are made of chemicals called alkyl nitrites like isobutyl, isoamyl, isopentyl, and isopropyl nitrite. According to gay legend, poppers in the ‘70s and ‘80s were “pure” and only made of amyl nitrite or isobutyl nitrite, with none of the harsh (and sometimes harmful) chemicals found in modern poppers. Those older, original formulas were snorted, huffed, soaked in a rag, and shared at discos (Studio 54), gay clubs (The Saint), and bathhouses everywhere, and were considered fairly innocuous. For the most part, poppers are still seen as mostly harmless substances. After some debate on whether or not they should be banned in the U.K., the U.K.’s Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs ruled in 2016 that poppers have such limited effects on the body that they couldn’t be included in the heavily-contentious Psychoactive Substances Act

But modern, mass-produced, and widely counterfeited poppers contain chemicals like cyclohexyl nitrite, isopropyl nitrate, and others we simply don’t know about, which is why they tend to have less predictable side effects than older formulas. Some gay men are experts at telling authentic brand names — which are generally considered completely safe (and this has been told to me by the owner of the largest poppers manufacturer in the world) — from their more dangerous counterfeits, but most lay buyers are not able to tell the difference (I’m not). Regardless if you take a hit from an authentic brand name or a fake, the side effects are usually mild, like a temporary headache. But every now and then, fakes includes dangerous compounds that cause permanent vision damage, and experts warn that some compounds being sold as poppers are not poppers at all — particularly the aerosolized product “Maximum Impact” (after a bad experience with Maximum Impact, I decided to never use it again). 

Poppers are not always benign. Regardless of what compound you ingest, all formulas will dilate blood vessels and make your blood pressure drop, which can cause dizziness and can make you pass out. Using poppers with blood pressure medication can be deadly, and it’s commonly known that you should never use poppers while taking erectile dysfunction pills — medications like Viagra also make your blood pressure drop and the combination can kill you. Most deaths from poppers happen when people use them with these medications.

Poppers were once incorrectly thought to cause Kaposi’s sarcoma or KS, a type of cancer commonly associated with AIDS, and although this has been debunked, many conspiracy theory sites still claim that poppers are linked to everything from KS to various other health conditions. In the ‘80s, poppers were a knee-jerk scapegoat for the emerging AIDS crisis. It’s inaccurate to say that poppers have no relationship with HIV infection risk — they are typically used for wilder, rougher gay sex, which often does omit condoms and has an implicitly higher risk of HIV infection — but to single them out is misguided and needlessly shaming. All recreational drugs, particularly methamphetamine, have been shown to increase unprotected sex among men who fuck men, and therefore increase the likelihood of HIV transmission. Using meth and poppers together reportedly triples the risk of HIV infection, according to data from the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study

“Best practices” with poppers for someone without your health condition would be the same as with any other drug: don’t do them alone. Do them with friends. Take your HIV meds if you’re HIV-positive, take PrEP if you’re not, get frequent STI testing, and so on. But for you, things are a bit different. You need to speak to a medical professional — ideally a gay, younger, sex-positive medical professional.

For what it’s worth, I love poppers too. I almost always use them when I have sex. I won’t rehash tired arguments like the ones you’ve probably heard from people who claim that sober sex is the best sex or the “purest” sex because we both know that’s not true. There’s a reason so many people use poppers (and other substances) when they fuck. Sex on drugs is fun.

It’s not always better, but it’s definitely fun. Those concerned with public health and the epidemic of drug misuse among queer people would do well to take a moment, before pathologizing substance use, to acknowledge that we enjoy these things because they enrich our lives, at least on a superficial level, and that’s enough to keep enjoying them. But you need all the facts before weighing the risks.

I don’t have any techniques in my pocket to help you enjoy sex without poppers, nor do I have any backup substances that I consider safe with your condition. All I can do is suggest that you find a medical professional you can be honest with.

You should ask your doctor for full clarification on what dangers exist when combining something you love (poppers) with something you need (blood pressure medication), and if he or she immediately shames you, or tells you you’re being reckless and irresponsible for even asking, find a new doctor. The fact is, if you love poppers, you will likely use them again in the heat of the moment, and you need a doctor who understands this and can counsel you appropriately.

I’ll add this: I’ve had great sober sex and know people who have incredible, hardcore sober sex. The body and mind are capable of experiencing intense pleasure without chemical help. If you’re willing to work on it, you can enjoy the sex you like without poppers. Perhaps not immediately, and maybe not even in six months, but you’ll get there. If you choose to go this route, you will eventually have a completely new understanding and appreciation of your body and ability — and that will be truly beautiful.

Love, Beastly 

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