Amyl Nitrite is an inhalant drug, and part of the alkyl nitrite family. Though it is often referred to as Amyl Nitrate, the Nitrate is a diesel fuel additive, and though similarly named, the two are distinct and should not be confused.
Amyl Nitrite was first synthesised in a laboratory in 1844 by French chemist Antoine Balard. It has been used as a medical treatment around the world since as far back as the 1860s, most commonly for the treatment of heart conditions such as angina. However as more effective treatments have since become available for these purposes, it is not commonly prescribed as a heart medication today. The drug has also been found to be effective in treating cyanide poisoning.
Amyl Nitrite is a vasodilator, meaning that it dilates the blood vessels of the individual, allowing more blood to pass through and so lowering blood pressure.
Since the 1970s, Amyl Nitrite has also been used as a recreational drug, most commonly referred to as ‘poppers’. This name comes from early forms of Amyl Nitrite medication which came in the form of crushable (or ‘popped’) ampoules to be inhaled by angina sufferers. However in modern recreational use it usually comes in the form of a liquid contained in a small glass bottle.
Though it is usually in a clear liquid form, it is the vapour of the drug that is inhaled through the nostrils. Amyl Nitrite is highly poisonous and potentially fatal if drunk.
When sniffed it generates a range of short-term effects in the user, including feelings of euphoria, a ‘light’ head, warmness, excitement, increased awareness, muscle relaxation, a fast heart-beat and giddiness.
The strength and duration of effects depend largely on the dose taken, determined by the depth and length of the inhalation, but they are fast acting and will generally last no more than a few minutes. The initial high is usually followed by a headache.
In the UK, US and other countries it is illegal to possess Amyl Nitrite without a prescription.
Most modern ‘poppers’ products sold legally in shops do not contain Amyl Nitrite anymore because it has been banned. However poppers remain for sale containing other similar chemicals, such as isopropyl nitrite. Common brand names for these include Liquid Gold, Rush, Purple Haze and Buzz. Because it is illegal to sell such products as a recreational drug, they are usually advertised and packaged as ‘room odorisers’. As a broad group, Poppers may be referred to as nitrites.
However, poppers containing the original Amyl Nitrite chemical are still available on the black market and from overseas countries where their production and sale has not been outlawed. These are also sold under brand names, with Jungle Juice being one of the most common, though there have been many versions sold under this name, not all of which contain Amyl Nitrite.
Generic street names for Amyl Nitrite include Snappers, Amyls, Aimes, Amys and Pearls. It is also commonly referred to as Amyl Nitrate (a different chemical, as discussed above), or as Animal Nitrate.
When an individual inhales Amyl Nitrite they feel an intense but short-lasting ‘rush’. The symptoms of this include euphoria, warm tingling sensations in the head and elsewhere in the body, excitement, muscle relaxation and light-headedness.
It is known that some people use Amyl Nitrite and other nitrites to enhance sexual experiences, due to its muscle relaxant properties and the temporary heightened sensitivity it offers. It has also been used extensively as a club drug, and to enhance the experiences of other drugs.
The primary reason for the effects of Amyl Nitrite is that it, in common with other Alkyl Nitrites, relaxes the involuntary ‘smooth’ muscles of the body, notably those around the blood vessels. This vasodilation effect widens the blood vessels, producing a rush of blood and oxygen around the body.
In addition to the effects that recreational users seek there are many potential negative effects. Immediately after inhaling Amyl Nitrite, some users may experience nose bleeds, respiratory problems and nausea. Headaches often follow heavy use. When used with other drugs, particularly those that also act on blood pressure such as Viagra, there is a high risk of losing consciousness, and deaths have been reported. Individuals with blood pressure conditions may also be at greater risk.
Because it can lower inhibitions and create a feeling of excitement, Amyl Nitrite can also lead to dangerous risk-taking behaviour. In addition to this, experimenting with inhalants such as nitrites may lead to use of harder drugs.
If swallowed, Amyl Nitrite becomes extremely dangerous, and can even be fatal. This can occur if someone is not familiar with inhalant use and decides to try the substance without understanding its use. It is also a powerful irritant and will burn with contact to skin or eyes.
Amyl Nitrite is manufactured legally for medical use in pharmaceutical laboratories in countries throughout the world. In many countries, such as the US and UK, it is illegal to sell it without a medicinal license, but it not illegal to use or possess it. In some cases this has made it possible for individuals to import the substance legally from countries that do allow its unrestricted production. China in particular has a high number of manufacturers of Amyl Nitrite.
In addition to these commercially produced bottles of ‘poppers’, supplies of the drug intended for medicinal use may also be obtained through fraud, theft and diversion, and then sold on the black market.
Poppers containing other nitrites that are legal can often be manufactured without restriction, but are thinly marketed for other purposes beyond their well-known recreational use such as cleaning fluid for videotape heads, and as room odorisers. These are often sold in sex shops and those that sell drug paraphernalia. They have also been made available through stalls at music festivals and other events in the UK and elsewhere.
Many poppers are sold over the Internet on specialist sites under a variety of colourful brand names. It can be very hard for users to know exactly what is contained within the small bottles they purchase. In many cases, casual users are unaware of the differences between inhalants containing actual Amyl Nitrite and those which contain other nitrites such as butyl nitrite.
Amyl Nitrite is sometimes manufactured in home labs, though this requires in-depth chemistry knowledge and skills beyond those of a layperson.
Although Amyl Nitrite is not thought to be addictive physically or psychologically, it does have the potential for regular abuse. This drug seeking and using behaviour in adolescents may prove to be a ‘gateway’ to harder, more serious drug use.
One sign that a person is abusing Amyl Nitrite or poppers made from a similar chemical is that small bottles, usually brownish in colour, may be found in their pockets, in bags or in bedside drawers. Such bottles will contain a liquid and may have a colourfully decorated label emblazoned with a brand name such as Liquid Gold or Kick. The bottle may indicate that it is to be used as a room odoriser, and that it should not be inhaled. If the cap is unscrewed, this liquid will smell faintly sweet and chemically.
In some instances, tissues or rags may be soaked with the substance to allow inhalation, potentially providing further evidence of use.
Other signs of abuse include frequent skin problems and irritation around the mouth and nose area. This is because if the liquid itself accidentally comes into contact with the skin it can burn and irritate.
Immediately after use, an individual abusing Amyl Nitrite may appear flushed and red in the face. They may also act strangely, if only momentarily, such as laughing uncontrollably, appearing euphoric or light headed.
Frequent use may result in lasting headaches and mood swings, though there is little data available on the effects of long-term use. Once again, while poppers are not addictive of themselves, they can lead to drugs which are.
As discussed previously, Amyl Nitrite is not known to be addictive, so there is no risk of withdrawal symptoms upon cessation of the drug. In many people who abuse Amyl Nitrite and other form of poppers, use is casual and infrequent therefore no specific treatment is needed.
However some users, particularly teenagers and younger people with little access to other drugs, may use it more frequently on a daily basis to get a buzz. In such cases the best approach may be parental confrontation, intervention and education. In many cases it may be the first substance that the individual has experimented with and they may have little knowledge of its effects or risks. Calmly explaining the effects that inhalants can have on the body and the risks associated with them can be far more effective than angry reactions and punishment.
In young users, early confrontation over use of poppers may be a key step in preventing further experimentation with drugs and growing drug seeking and taking behaviour.
Sometimes Amyl Nitrite use may be accompanied by the use of other drugs, particularly other inhalants, which are by their nature easily obtainable even for children and teens. Examples of inhalants, which are used by inhaling chemical vapours, include aerosol cans (deodorants, spray paints, air fresheners), solvent glues, lighter gas (butane) from both cigarette lighters and refill canisters, Nitrous Oxide, correction fluids, paint thinners, certain marker pens and nail polish removers.
Common terms for the act of abusing inhalants include huffing, sniffing, snorting and bagging.
Though the effects of inhalants are relatively short in duration when compared with illegal drugs, their appeal is often found in the rapidity with which these effects, the ‘high’, are experienced – often within a few seconds.
Frequent use of Amyl Nitrite can result in a host of unpleasant side effects, and if used with other drugs such as alcohol and Viagra, it can present a risk of fatality due to the dramatic drop in blood pressure.
The risks of the user experimenting with other inhalants can potentially be more dangerous than the risks associated with Amyl Nitrite use. Sudden Sniffing Death Syndrome (SSDS) has been linked to the abuse of some inhalants, though not Amyl Nitrite. This is a highly unpredictable medical emergency which can occur when ‘huffing’ inhalants triggers cardiac arrest by dramatically effecting the way the heart beats. This can occur at any point during inhalant abuse, and is not necessarily associated with a particularly high dose. Furthermore, a user may abuse a particular product many times without damage, before suffering a SSDS incident. This may result in death, or brain damage and other lasting injuries.
Education over the dangers of inhalants is particularly important in dealing with anyone found to be abusing Amyl Nitrite. In the case of young children and teenagers with frequent habits, psychological help and counselling may be needed to help them deal with mental health and life issues which may be driving them to abuse substances. This may address the specific Amyl Nitrite abuse, and also more general drug seeking behaviours.