Poppers: A Quick and Dirty History of Your Favorite Inhalant

Poppers: A Quick and Dirty History of Your Favorite Inhalant

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Many gay and bisexual men use poppers as a euphoric sex-drug: The nitrate-based inhalants provide an intense and disorienting rush of sensation that helps relax involuntary muscles in the throat and anus, assisting with oral and anal sex. The history of poppers, these days largely unknown outside of the LGBTQ community, is truly long and interesting. Let’s take a peek at the history of poppers on a super basic level.

According to writer C. Brian Smith, a Scottish physician named Sir Thomas Lauder Brunton began using amyl nitrate to treat angina, severe chest pains caused by a lack of blood flow to the heart. Amyl nitrate causes blood vessels to dilate, increasing blood flow to the heart, reducing pain and bringing with it a warm sensational rush to the skin.

Smith adds that poppers used to be sold in mesh-covered glass vials that made a popping sound when crushed, hence the name “poppers.” The mesh protected users’ skin from shards while they popped and inhaled the drug.

Some old-timey poppers in mesh sleeves

Historian Dr. Lucy Robinson confirms what gays have long known about the history of poppers: they have appeared in numerous gay dance scenes throughout the 20th century, including discos, raves and nightclubs. Their disorienting effects alter light and sound, making dancers feel euphoric and free, if only for a few seconds. They were also cheap, easy to carry around and easy to use without detection.

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At one time poppers were sold in the United States over-the-counter until the Food and Drug Administration began requiring a prescription for them in 1969. In 1988, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission banned the sale of certain poppers, though poppers manufacturers kept altering their chemical recipes enough to avoid the ban.

“To evade anti-drug laws,” Smith adds, “poppers are often labeled as room deodorizers, leather polish or tape head cleaner.” You can often see them labeled as such in gay sex shops and bathhouses today.

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Poppers do come with health risks. While the drug was misleadingly conflated with HIV during the epidemic’s earliest days — and, no, there’s no connection — studies have shown that poppers can dramatically lower blood pressure, decreasing oxygenation to the brain and causing rapid, shallow breathing, blurred vision, dizziness and fainting.

Despite the sordid history of poppers, surveys have shown that one-third of gay and bi men use poppers, and use of poppers is increasing among straight people as well.

How familiar were you with the history of poppers? Let us know.

This article was originally published on August 11, 2020. It has since been updated.

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