A Guide to Nitrites (Poppers)

A Guide to Nitrites (Poppers)

In this comprehensive guide to nitrites (or “poppers”), we outline everything there is to know about the drug, whether it is legal, the dangers of taking it, and how to prevent becoming addicted to the drug, as well as how to treat addiction to nitrites.

What are nitrites?

Nitrites are chemical drugs that are typically exhaled for euphoric, sexually productive, and intoxicating effects.

The variations are known collectively as either alkyl nitrites or, more commonly, poppers since it was initially available in a small capsule which made a popping noise upon opening. Other common names for the drug include amyl, butyl, hardware, liquid gold, locker room, poppers, ram, rock hard, rush, snapper, stag, stud, thrust, and TNT.

They come in the form of gold-coloured liquids in a very small bottle with screw-on lids, sporting various different brand names, including but not limited to THT, liquid gold, and purple haze. Whilst fresh, nitrites boast a sweet odour. However, this often turns into a ‘dirty socks’ smell once it becomes stale. When inhaled, the liquids are either taken from the bottle or from a cloth.

The effects of inhaling nitrites are that they are quickly absorbed into the bloodstream, resulting in a relaxation of muscles in the body, including the anus and throat. They also cause blood vessels to dilate and lead to a decrease in blood pressure, creating a temporary high which can last up to three minutes on average.

The history of nitrites

Amyl nitrite has a medicinal past starting as early as 1857, as a treatment of angina, which is commonly known as a heavy, tight, and squeezing chest pain. It functioned by causing blood vessels to relax and therefore increasing the blood and oxygen flow to the heart. However, the drug has since been replaced by other medication such as transdermal patches and is currently only used to treat cyanide poisoning due to its ability to produce a change in the ogle in which subsequently releases cyanide from the cell sites where they would otherwise be dangerous.

However, the recreational use of nitrites did progress. During the 1950s, nitrites became a popular drug to consume amongst showbiz circles and ten years later gained momentum as a street drug around America. The drug later became popularly used in discos and nightclubs in the 70s before gaining popularity at rave and dance events during the 80s and 90s.

The effects of nitrite

Upon inhalation, the effects of nitrite are almost immediate and can last up to a few minutes. During this time, individuals may feel a chemically induced rush as their heartbeat quickens and causes the blood to rush to their head. This is often followed by lightheadedness, a flushed complexion, and dizziness. Headaches are also among the most frequently suffered side effects of inhaling nitrite, along with sickness.

Additionally, nitrites relax the muscles in our body, including those in the vagina and anus, therefore proving to be a popular drug to take during sexual intercourse. Individuals that inhale nitrites for sexual pleasure also report a prolonged sensation of orgasm and the prevention of rare mature ejaculation, however, it can also hinder an individual from achieving an erection too.

The use of nitrites in the UK

Within the UK, some variations of nitrite are available for purchase in sex stores, public houses, night clubs, online, and in tobacconists, priced in the range of £1 to £5 for a small bottle. Their use has expanded beyond the gay community in the UK, with a prevalence of the drug amongst teenagers. Illustratively, the Home Office reported findings that 8.3% of 16- to 59-year-olds surveyed had taken amyl nitrite before. This is unsurprising since the drug is relatively easy to acquire compared to other drugs.

In the past, the UK had almost banned the drug, also coined as ‘poppers’, when the Home Secretary at the time pushed legislation to make them illegal. However, the government performed a U-turn on the matter following unrest among Conservative MPs and expert opinion, both of which meant that the ban was never formalised. The justification behind the reversal was that the act in question concerned psychoactive substances, which experts said nitrites could not correctly be categorised as since, unlike psychoactive substances, nitrites only have peripheral effects, not direct effects on the brain.

With that in mind, nitrites cannot be advertised for sale in the UK for the purpose of human consumption, but are instead advertised as room odourisers due to their initially sweet scent when fresh and can nonetheless be purchased.

Are nitrites safe?

For their most popular form of consumption and in healthy individuals, nitrites are not strictly unsafe and are not as bad when compared to other volatile drugs. However, the risks and side effects of inhalation are especially heightened for individuals with heart conditions, anaemica, abnormal blood pressure, or those that are on certain medications or are pregnant.

Nitrites are completely unsafe to swallow since they are highly toxic and they carry a significant risk of death when consumed in this way. Therefore, when consumed incorrectly, nitrite can be incredibly dangerous.

Combining nitrite with other drugs, particularly those which have an effect on blood pressure, is ill-advised since this can be fatal, either causing fainting, strokes, or heart attacks. As with most drugs, there is also a risk of overdose, albeit rare. In the event of overdose, organs can fail due to blood being unable to transport the necessary oxygen around the body.

There are other, less fatal but still significant implications of inhaling nitrites. In fact, one form of nitrite, Isopropyl, has been associated with eye damage, making it especially dangerous for individuals who suffer from glaucoma, an eye disease. Additionally, since nitrites are a potential carcinogen, those that make regular use of nitrites may be at an increased risk of developing certain cancers. Nitrites also heighten the risk of passing on blood-borne viruses, since they increase the chance of tearing during sex, which results in higher rates of transmission of diseases like HIV.

In terms of addiction, regular users of nitrite will find that as their tolerance to the drug develops, it no longer brings on a high. However, there is no evidence that nitrites are addictive in the sense that they create a physical dependence or addiction and there are no clear withdrawal symptoms. However, long term use may result in a psychological dependence instead.

Are nitrites illegal?

The law on nitrites in the UK has been somewhat confusing, but as nitrites aren’t controlled under the Misuse of Drugs Act, they are legal to manufacture, supply or possess. Nitrites also escaped being banned under the Psychoactive Substances Act in 2016 following advice from experts that nitrites do not “directly stimulate or depress the central nervous system are psychoactive” like other legal highs under this act.


In 2018 this was thrown into limbo when a Court of Appeal decision confirmed that even substances that had an indirect psychoactive effect could still fall within the ambit of the legislation. This decision muddies the water slightly because although it was on the issue of nitrous oxide, it still had significant effects for nitrites too since they are similar in nature.

Technically speaking, the legal definition of a psychoactive substance has broadened and it remains unclear whether nitrites remain legal. In fact, in August of 2020, the current Home Secretary, Priti Patel, sought clarification on the issue, seeking to confirm the drug’s legality.