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What Are the Risks of Using Nitrates to Get High?

Inhalants are household products that are abused in order to produce a mind-altering effect. In most cases, this is to produce a euphoric “high.” Most individuals using these products in this manner are children and adolescents, with the exception of nitrates, which are most commonly abused by adults to enhance sexual function, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) reports.

Nitrates are often called “poppers” or “snappers.” They typically contain amyl nitrate, butyl nitrate, or cyclohexyl nitrate. These chemicals are found in room deodorizers or small, sealed capsules that are “popped” or “snapped” open to release the vapors that are then inhaled. The ensuing high comes from technically legal products. These products are cheap and easy to get, as they may be purchased over-the-counter in many different stores and locations. They may even be sold in adult bookshops as “sexual enhancement” products. Organic nitrates may be marketed in small brown bottles labeled “liquid aroma,” “video head cleaner,” “leather cleaner,” or “room odorizer.”

Inhalants are often abused by “huffing” the products, which are soaked into rags and inhaled.

The fumes can also be breathed in or sprayed directly into the mouth or nose, or sprayed into bags (called “bagging”) to be inhaled.

The high typically sets in rather quickly and lasts about 15-30 minutes, Mayo Clinic reports. Individuals often feel lightheaded, confused, uncoordinated, and less inhibited when under the influence of an inhalant. This may lead to accidents, injuries, or out-of-character risk-taking behaviors that may have a variety of negative and unintended consequences. Nitrates increase heart rate and pulse, can cause headaches and dizziness, and can also make a person defecate or urinate unintentionally.

Inhalant abuse can be deadly in as little as one use as it can lead to sudden sniffing death syndrome, the National Capital Poison Center warns. When this happens, oxygen to the brain is depleted, heart rate becomes irregular, and death can occur rapidly.

Dangers of Abusing Nitrates Regularly

Long-term, inhalant abuse can damage many internal organs and body systems. Potential issues include:

  • Brain damage
  • Liver and kidney damage
  • Nerve and nervous system damage
  • Muscle weakness
  • Bone marrow damage
  • Gallstones
  • Rashes on the face, particularly around the nose and mouth
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Electrolyte imbalance
  • Weight loss

In general, most inhalants are central nervous system depressants. Nitrates, however, work a little differently than other inhalants. They relax and dilate blood vessels, which increases sexual pleasure and functions. This may increase the risk for engaging in sexual practices that may be unsafe, thus increasing the odds for potentially contracting a sexually transmitted or infectious disease, such as hepatitis or HIV/AIDS.
NIDA reports that nitrates may also damage the workings of the immune system, disrupting cells and the mechanisms necessary to fight off infectious disease, thus potentially leading to the progression of these diseases. Tumor growth may also be enhanced by the presence of nitrates. Nitrate abuse may be a risk factor for some types of cancer as well.

Regular use of a nitrate can also cause a person to become physically and emotionally dependent on these products. This can in turn lead to addiction, which is a chronic and complex disease with many far-reaching undesirable emotional, social, behavioral, financial, physical, and interpersonal effects.

Amyl nitrate is the common, assumed formula for recreational drug poppers, but there are actually many other chemicals that are sold under this generic term, including amyl nitrite, alkyl nitrite, isopropyl nitrite, butyl nitrite, and isobutyl nitrite.

Nitrates and nitrites are naturally occurring chemicals, which have a difference of one oxygen molecule; nitrite has two oxygen molecules and one nitrogen, while nitrate has three oxygen molecules and one nitrogen. Nitrates were developed in the 19th century to treat chest pain and angina. Both sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are used to preserve meats.

Nitrates typically metabolize into nitrites, and research has linked eating too much preserved meat with nitrates and nitrites to increased risks of cancer. Nitrites metabolize into nitrosamines, which have been closely associated with cancer. Nitrates and nitrites are also highly flammable, and nitrate is a key ingredient in dynamite and some fuels.

As recreational drugs, both nitrate-based and nitrite-based substances are vasodilators, meaning they open up the blood vessels and cause an energetic, stimulated high. Both drugs increase the supply of oxygenated blood to the heart while simultaneously reducing how hard that organ works to get blood.

Nitrites have been found more potent when used nonmedically, so they are more widely abused as poppers than amyl nitrate. Alkyl nitrites is the name of the family of chemicals most commonly found in poppers. The liquid is either clear or yellow, and it is usually consumed by spraying into the nose like a nasal spray antihistamine. Amyl nitrite specifically is banned in many places and no longer sold as poppers in most countries, but other nitrites are legally available.

How Nitrites Work and What They Do

Poppers work primarily on the cardiovascular system, and they are among very few recreational substances that do not induce euphoria by interacting with brain chemistry. While a person who abuses poppers may experience a release of dopamine and serotonin because they feel relaxed and energetic, the root cause of this experience is physiological because of changes to the cardiovascular function. Because nitrites do not attach to receptors in the brain, they are not considered addictive; this may be a misrepresentation, however, as about 2.1 million people over the age of 12 in the United States have reported abusing poppers at least once.

Short-term side effects from any poppers, in the alkyl nitrite family, include:

  • Drop in blood pressure that can lead to dizziness or fainting
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Flushing in the face and possibly the chest
  • Excitement, including sexual excitement
  • Lowered inhibitions
  • Detachment
  • Headache as the drug clears the system

Because nitrites cause a drop in blood pressure, they can be dangerous for people with preexisting conditions like glaucoma, breathing trouble, or cardiovascular damage, disease, or irregularities. If swallowed, poppers can be deadly.

Nitrites irritate the skin, even causing rashes or burns. People who struggle with poppers abuse will have signature burn marks around their nose and sometimes on the skin of their face or hands. They will also burn if they come in contact with sensitive tissues like the eyes.

Inhaling Poppers Can Be Deadly

Alkyl nitrites are alleged to be safe, but this is not always true. They are volatile chemicals, and in large doses, they can prevent hemoglobin from binding with oxygen. Nitrites convert this part of the blood, which typically makes it red, into methemoglobin, which turns deep brown. This new chemical does not bind well with oxygen, so the body effectively dies of asphyxiation. It may take some time for this process to become fatal, so the person is more likely to suffer blindness, brain damage, and organ failure. This will lead to a lifetime of required medical care.

Additionally, alcohol-based nitrites like butyl, isopropyl, and isobutyl nitrite can cause liver damage or failure. When the nitrite is metabolized into different chemicals, the alcohol is taken off the molecule and processed differently. Because the toxic effects are delayed and build up over time, liver damage will not be immediate but could instead be a lasting, chronic effect from abusing poppers.

Abusing Volatile Inhalants Is Dangerous

Poppers may not be considered addictive, but they have many negative effects. Several people report feeling dependent on poppers in social situations, including sexual scenarios, so the drugs can trigger some physical dependence, tolerance, and compulsion associated with addiction. Fortunately, rehabilitation programs are available to help clients overcome abuse of these drugs.