Butyl Nitrite

Main type

Butyl nitrite is an inhalant drug, known more commonly in recreational use as “poppers”, which refers to one of several chemical compounds known under this name, including other alkyl nitrites. They are inhaled by users for the brief yet intense rush that they produce, which can help to increase sexual pleasure and produce a feeling of euphoria. It relaxes blood vessels, increasing the heart rate and blood flow throughout the whole body, with the effects usually lasting for no longer than few minutes at the most. It is packaged in small glass vials partially because it loses potency after only a few days, but also because only small amounts are required to experience its effects.

Butyl nitrite and poppers at large are considered to be amongst some of the least dangerous drugs available, although they can still be very hazardous, particularly with improper use or for those with underlying medical problems. Using poppers as anything other than an inhalant, for example by drinking or injecting it, is extremely dangerous. Butyl nitrite is also highly flammable, and whilst it can be inhaled from a cigarette that has been dipped in poppers, there have been reported cases of injuries resulting from users unwittingly igniting such cigarettes.

Addiction is not usually an issue with poppers, as it is not a physiologically addictive drug. However it is not unheard of for people to develop butyl nitrite habits, which can lead to a form of dependency.

Originally intended for medicinal purposes, poppers began to reach mainstream popularity in nightclubs in the 1970s, initially amongst the homosexual community in particular. However it soon gained a varied user base across a range of different social sectors.

Alkyl nitrites, of which butyl nitrite is a form, do have potentially legitimate albeit spurious uses in air fresheners, video head cleaners and nail polish removers, and whilst they are restricted in some countries including the US, they are legal in others so long as they are not marketed as being intended for human consumption.

Other Types

In recreational use, butyl nitrite is known almost exclusively as “poppers”, which can also refer to other alkyl nitrites. Whilst poppers might be considered its street name, it is often marketed with brand names such as “TNT”, “Liquid Gold” and “Rush”. It is widely available in many countries, particularly in the developed world.

Whilst it is technically a restricted substance, it can be prescribed for medicinal purposes. In the United Kingdom, poppers are often seen in shops and stalls selling drug paraphernalia, gay bars and on the Internet, due to the fact that they are technically legal as long as they are not marketed for recreational use. Its relatively low fatality rate and risk of dependency compared to other drugs make it a low priority for governments and drug enforcement agencies.

Major Effects

The effects of butyl nitrite inhalation are almost instantaneous, and very intense for a brief period of time. Users will experience a rush of blood to the head, with an accompanying light-headedness sensation and hot flush. Poppers relax muscles known as “smooth muscles”, which surround blood vessels. This results in increased blood flow, and a dramatically increased heart rate. Smooth muscles are also found in the anus, which goes some way towards explaining the popularity of the drug within the gay community. It is said to increase sexual pleasure and slow the perception of time, although effects may be slightly different for different users.

Despite the immediacy and intensity of the effects of poppers upon inhalation, they are exceptionally short-lived, lasting from 30 seconds to a few minutes depending on the quantity inhaled. Prolonged exposure is normally unpleasant due to the headaches that poppers cause, and so overdose by inhalation is unusual.

Poppers are not without their risks, and should not be used by anyone with heart or blood pressure problems, as they can be fatal. Poppers also cause swelling of the eyes, which can pose a risk for glaucoma sufferers. Butyl nitrite should never be mixed with Viagra, as this can be very dangerous.

More commonly, excessive use of poppers will give users a headache, and contact with the substance can cause burns to the skin. This may also occur with repeated inhalation, and irritation may develop around the mouth and nose.

Ingesting poppers is exceptionally dangerous even accidentally in small amounts, and can cause unconsciousness, coma or death. Pregnant women should avoid poppers.

Production countries

Whilst poppers in the US are technically illegal, their relatively low health risks and mortality risks make them a low priority for drug enforcement agencies, and as long as they are marketed as for example room fragrances or video head cleaners it seems that they can be traded with little interference. It is a similar case in the UK and other European countries, where supply can technically be an offence, but possession is not. It is somewhat of a peculiarity in the UK and other countries that so long as they are not advertised as being for human consumption, poppers are legal under the Medicines Act 1968, despite it being widely accepted that this is their most common use.

They can also potentially be prescribed at a pharmacy to treat conditions such as angina, although this would be highly unusual given the availability of more effective drugs. Governments tend to concentrate their efforts on tackling harder drugs and serious solvent abuse, meaning there are relatively few arrests in Western countries on charges related solely to poppers.

For this reason there is very little smuggling of butyl nitrate on a large scale, as it tends to be more economically viable to manufacture it in the country in which it is sold, or simply import legal varieties. There has also been growth in recent years in the amount of poppers imported through orders placed on Internet sites based in countries where poppers are legal, such as China, Poland, South Africa and the United Kingdom. Despite their apparent legality in these places, many other countries classify poppers as an illegal substance, albeit a low priority one considering its low health risks.

In the US, many companies that previously used butyl nitrite in the manufacture of poppers reacted to legislation outlawing it by instead using the legal compound cyclohexyl nitrite as the primary ingredient. It still must not be advertised as being intended for human consumption. Poppers manufactured in the UK tend to use butyl nitrite as the primary ingredient.

Poppers are most commonly found for sale in sex shops, market stalls and drug paraphernalia shops as opposed to mainstream shops and supermarkets, reflecting the somewhat grey area in their legality. Until butyl nitrite, as well as poppers at large, becomes linked to a significant number of health risks and fatalities, it seems that manufacturers, governments and users appear to be in relative equilibrium.

Attempts to criminalise the drug further would only result in changes to the ingredients being made to circumvent legislation, potentially resulting in more dangerous variants being produced and an increase in illegal trafficking. Equally, any attempt by manufacturers to market poppers as a recreational drug, despite this in fact being its intended use, would be considered illegal.

Facts and stats

FACTS

  • Butyl nitrite is a primary ingredient used in poppers. Amyl nitrite can also be used. Poppers is the term used for these substances as a recreational drug.
  • When inhaled, it creates an intense euphoric high, with hot flushes and relaxation of muscles, particularly around the anus. Whilst the effects are immediately apparent upon inhalation, they rarely last more than a few minutes.
  • Poppers were originally used to treat angina and cyanide poisoning. They began to be marketed commercially in the 1970s, becoming particularly popular amongst gay communities in the US.
  • Their legality in many countries is somewhat of a grey area. In the United Kingdom butyl nitrite poppers are legal so long as they are advertised as for example nail polish remover or video head cleaners and not for human consumption.
  • Poppers are considered relatively harmless compared to other drugs, and are not addictive. However they can be enormously dangerous when combined with other medical complications such as glaucoma, anaemia and heart problems.
  • They are especially dangerous if ingested, and in these instances can prove fatal.
  • The name “poppers” comes from the popping sound made by the glass capsules that the drug used to be sold in. Nowadays it is sold in small glass vials, partially because it very quickly loses potency, but also because only small amounts are required to experience its effects.
  • Poppers can burn the skin on contact, and repeated use can cause irritation around the nose and mouth, as these are the areas where it is inhaled.
  • In the past, poppers have been associated with HIV, and sometimes attributed as a cause. However there is no scientific evidence to support this. Instead it is thought that users of poppers tend to be more likely to engage in high risk sexual behaviours. It can also increase susceptibility to certain cancers amongst those who are HIV positive.

STATS

  • A 1987 study in the US concluded that less than 3% of the population had ever used poppers. This figure increases dramatically for homosexual males, where use of poppers is far more prevalent.
  • The effects of poppers are instantaneous upon inhalation, but only last for 2-3 minutes at the most.
  • In 2000-2001, it was reported that 1.5% of American aged 12-17 admitted using poppers. This figure rose to 1.8% among adolescents over 14.
  • Conversely, a survey in North-West England found that 20% of 16 year olds admitted to using poppers, suggesting that poppers are far more popular among this age group in the United Kingdom than they are in the US.
  • Popper vials range in size from 5-30ml, however they are most commonly sold in 10ml quantities. A 30ml vial would potentially be enough for hundreds of inhalations.
  • Butyl nitrate has a boiling point of 78.2 degrees Celsius.
  • In 1978, profits in the poppers industry were thought to be in excess of $50 million per year. The industry at this time was largely run by criminal gangs.
  • A 1988 study of homosexual men in Washington DC and Baltimore found that 69% of respondents admitted to having used poppers, with 21% saying they had used poppers in the past year.

Addiction Signs

Poppers are not physically addictive, however it is possible to build up a psychological dependency on them, and there are reported cases of this occurring following repeated abuse of poppers. Some users may feel unable to perform sexually unless under the influence of poppers, or may just enjoy the head rush. Poppers may also be linked to abuse of other solvents and substances.

Whilst the effects of butyl nitrite are very short-lived, lasting only a couple of minutes at the most, they are easy to spot before they wear off. Upon inhalation a user will experience a hot flush and intense but brief senses of intoxication and euphoria, with their heartbeat becoming far quicker and more pronounced. After the initial effects wear off users may then complain of a headache.

The most obvious sign of regular poppers abuse is skin irritation around the nose and mouth. Poppers will burn the skin on contact, and the fumes in repeated doses will cause a similar effect.

Butyl nitrite is generally not available in conventional shops and supermarkets, and so repeated visits to sex shops, drug paraphernalia shops and market stalls may be with the intention of purchasing poppers. They are sold in small vials that will be labelled with a brand name such as “Liquid Gold” or “TNT”, being described as a video head cleaner or nail polish remover, and so the presence of these bottles could be cause for concern.

Treatments

Butyl nitrite is not addictive, however this does not necessarily mean that a user cannot develop a dependency on the drug psychologically. Perhaps because they feel that they cannot perform sexually without it, or they just enjoy the rush. To that end, a butyl nitrite addiction is relatively straightforward to treat, as with no physical symptoms of withdrawal it is simply a case of breaking the habit. Whilst it is advisable to consult a doctor with regard to any sort of addiction, a poppers addiction should not necessarily require too much intervention on their part in all but the most severe cases.

Giving up poppers is almost entirely down to willpower, as there are no physiological cravings to deal with. However, the reasons for addiction in the first place may potentially be rather more complex than simply enjoying the high. An underlying desire to alter one’s mood on a regular basis can be indicative of deeper psychological problems, the treatment of which will make recovery from butyl nitrite addiction far easier.

If a user feels unable to perform sexually without it, this can suggest emotional problems that may require therapy, simply talking to someone about it, or possibly medication of some form. A user who frequently wishes to alter their mood could potentially be suffering from other psychological problems such as depression. It is important to diagnose and treat such problems where possible, so as to eliminate the risk of an addict merely substituting one drug for another potentially more powerful and more harmful one in the future.

Repeated abuse of poppers has been linked to long term ill effects that may be cause for concern. In rare cases users may for instance be at an increased risk of conditions such as cardiac arrhythmia. It may be advisable when attempting to recover from poppers addiction to get a check-up from a doctor to ensure that any potential damage done in the long term is treated, rather than it going undetected until it is too late.

As with any habit, one of the ways to make it easier to break is to replace it with something less harmful. If a user is habitually inhaling poppers in certain situations or at certain times of day, it might be advisable to occupy oneself in other ways, for example with a stick of chewing gum.

Removing the temptation of purchasing poppers by not frequenting places where they are available might also be an effective course of action. When compared to other more potent drugs poppers are amongst the easiest to give up, however a long term habit can still be hard to break even when there are no physical signs of addiction.