Amyl Nitrite (Encyclopedia of Drugs and Addictive Substances)
- How Is It Taken?
- Usage Trends
- Do You Know What Nitrites Do?
- "A Feeling of Bursting of the Head"
- Jail Time or Anti-Drug Treatment?
- The Law
What Kind of Drug Is It?
Amyl nitrite is a clear, yellowish, flammable (burns easily) liquid with a strong fruity odor. Some sources describe it as having a sweet smell similar to a ripe banana; others compare it to the slightly sickening sweetness of a rotten apple. Old amyl nitrite takes on a vinegary smell similar to dirty, sweaty socks.
Amyl nitrite is a stimulant, meaning that it increases the rate at which chemical reactions occur in the body. Stimulants are substances that increase the activity of a living organism or one of its parts. Amyl nitrite evaporates into the air at room temperature and is not intended to be swallowed. Instead, the fumes from liquid amyl nitrite are inhaled by the user, usually through the nose. For this reason, amyl nitrite is called an . It is available legally in the United States only with a prescription.
Amyl nitrite was discovered in the United Kingdom in the mid-1800s and used to treat severe chest pain. People with heart disease (also called coronary artery disease) often experience shortness of breath and feelings of intense pain and pressure in their chests. This pain, called , is felt when the blood supply to the heart is restricted. Blood carries oxygen to all parts of the body. Without oxygen, the body's cells die. Chest pain is the brain's way of telling a person with coronary artery disease that the heart needs more oxygen. In order to get that oxygen, the flow of blood to the heart must increase.
Amyl nitrite helps relax the muscles around the blood vessels of the heart, making it easier for blood to flow through them. The blood vessels that carry oxygen to the heart are called arteries. Amyl nitrite acts on those arteries by dilating or opening them up. As a result, the pumping action of the heart improves, and blood circulates more freely throughout the body. When oxygen-rich blood reaches the heart, the chest pain goes away. Amyl nitrite acts very quickly, relieving the pain of angina in heart patients within a few minutes.
People who use amyl nitrite as a recreational drugUsing a drug solely to achieve a high, not to treat a medical condition. find its side effects appealing. Sniffing amyl nitrite brings on a short but dizzying burst of euphoria, making it a prime target for abuse. Its use as a recreational drug began growing in popularity in the 1950s. Because of the way in which amyl nitrite is taken, however, "it is very difficult to control the dose," explained Ruth Stalnikowicz in a Journal of Toxicology article. This can pose serious health threats to users. Throughout the 1960s, though, amyl nitrite was actually available to the public as an over-the-counter drug. According to Andrew Weil and Winifred Rosen in From Chocolate to Morphine, abuse of the substance skyrocketed during that time, and by 1969, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) declared that amyl nitrite could only be obtained with a doctor's prescription.
Over time, amyl nitrite was used less and less to treat angina, but it became fashionable on the club scene following rumors that it intensified sexual pleasure. It found particular acceptance among gay men in cities across the United States and the United Kingdom. Usage later spread to straight dance clubs, where both men and women sniffed it to achieve a quick that supposedly added to the wild dance club experience.
What Is It Made Of?
A is a chemical compound that contains one nitrogen atom joined to two oxygen atoms. The chemical symbol for a nitrite is NO2. In medical applications, nitrites are used to enlarge blood vessels. In the food industry, nitrites are often used as preservatives.
How Is It Taken?
Amyl nitrite vapor is usually inhaled through the nose and more rarely inhaled through the mouth. Small doses.3 millilitres eachf the prescription drug come in very fragile, airtight glass vials or containers called ampules. These ampules are covered with a layer of cotton material and topped off with an outer mesh wrapping. The containers are easily crushed between the thumb and fingers. That's how vials of amyl nitrite became known as poppersecause of the "popping" sound they make when crushed. In fact, the term poppers is so closely associated with amyl nitrite that it has been listed as a slang name for the drug in the last three editions of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. (The definition, according to Webster's 11th Edition, is "a vial of amyl nitrite or butyl nitrite used [illegally] as an inhalational .")
After the ampules are broken, the layer of cotton surrounding the popper becomes soaked with the drug. When the vapors from the liquid are inhaled, the amyl nitrite triggers an almost immediate jump in heart rate and a drop in blood pressure. Heart patients experiencing severe chest pain are instructed to wave the broken ampule under their noses and inhale the amyl nitrite vapors up to six times (while seated because dizziness may occur). Amyl nitrite begins working very quicklyithin fifteen to thirty secondsnd its pain-relieving effects are dramatic.
Because a prescription is required to obtain amyl nitrite in the United States, two variants of the drug, butyl nitrite and isobutyl nitrite, became popular in the 1970s. These and other nitrites are now generally sold in small, dark-colored glass bottles and sniffed in concentrated form. Nitrite-based inhalants produce an almost instant high that is felt for two to five minutes.
Are There Any Medical Reasons for Taking This Substance?
Amyl nitrite was originally manufactured and prescribed to treat angina pectoris, a heart condition marked by severe chest pain and shortness of breath. More effective treatments for angina now exist, and it is rarely prescribed for this purpose in the twenty-first century.
The most important medical use for amyl nitrite since the late 1980s has been as an for cyanideA poisonous chemical compound that shuts down the respiratory system, quickly killing people who have been exposed to it. poisoning. By the turn of the twenty-first century, the possibility of chemical weapons use in times of war had become increasingly real. The most extreme use of cyanide is as a chemical weapon, since high doses can kill large groups of people at one time. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, against the United States sparked considerable concern about the need for antidotes to poisons such as cyanide. According to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention hoped to have stocks of antidotes called "chem-packs" distributed to every state by 2006. Amyl nitrite is one of the drugs included in these chem-packs.
The use of amyl nitrite as a prescription drug for angina pectoris has dropped considerably since the 1960s. Doctors now use other drugs more commonly to control chest pain in heart patients. One of those drugs is nitroglycerin heavy, oily, highly explosive liquid. When used in very small doctor-prescribed amounts, it relieves the pain of angina pectoris. It is easier to administer than amyl nitrite, causes fewer side effects, and is considered a more reliable form of treatment for angina pectoris.
Since the growth in popularity of butyl nitrite and isobutyl nitrite in the 1970s, other nitrites have been produced and continue to be sold through Web sites and catalogs as an industrial chemical, specifically as a room deodorizer or liquid incense. These substances are widely known, however, for the high they give users who sniff them in concentrated form.
Clifford Sherry cited statistics from the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) in his 1994 book Inhalants. According to Sherry, more than 5 million Americans were abusing nitrites at least once a week in the early 1990s. At that time, the primary abusers of amyl nitrite were adults around twenty-five years of ageot students in middle school or high school. There are several reasons for this, and the main one is accessibility. Amyl nitrite is a prescription drug, which makes it harder for teens to obtain. Different inhalants, such as glue, paint, nail polish, hair spray, and other aerosol propellants, werend still arear easier to get and can produce a quick high of their own. (An entry on inhalants is available in this encyclopedia.)
Another reason for the historic popularity of amyl nitrite among people twenty-five and older had to do with the muscle-relaxing effects of the drug. Sherry points out that "nitrite abusers tend to be looking for different effects from the other inhalant abusers." The heart isn't the only muscle that amyl nitrite relaxes; other muscles throughout the body are affected by it as well. As a result, amyl nitrite has gained a reputation as a sexual aid, especially among gay men. In fact, the drug has a long history of use by members of the gay community. Medical experts have linked amyl nitrite abuse with unsafe sexual activity, prompting fears that users have a higher risk of developing AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome) and other sexually transmitted diseases.
As of 2005, nitrite abuse could be found across all ethnic groups, age levels, and genders. However, the most frequent users fell into one of two groups: 1) older, white, usually male adolescents from families with low to average incomes, and 2) teenagers and young adults who attend all-night dance parties, known as , on a regular basis. Nitrites are often used in combination with other so-called rave or club drugs, such as 2C-B, ecstasy (MDMA), GHB, and ketamine.
Few studies focus specifically on amyl nitrite abuse; the drug is usually lumped into the general category of inhalants. However, researchers and other members of the scientific community generally believe the amyl nitrite problem is not as severe as that posed by other, more readily available, inhalants.
Monitoring the Future Study
Data from national and state surveys show that, generally speaking, inhalant abuse is most common among middle school and high school students. The results of the 2004 Monitoring the Future (MTF) study, conducted by the University of Michigan (U of M) and sponsored by research grants from NIDA, were released to the public on December 21, 2004. Since 1991, U of M has tracked patterns of drug use and attitudes toward drugs among students in the eighth, tenth, and twelfth grades. (Prior to that, from 1975 to 1990, the MTF survey was limited to twelfth graders.)
Results of the 2004 MTF survey indicate that, overall, the abuse of inhalants among eighth graders increased between 2003 and 2004. (Note that this information refers to inhalants in general, not specifically to nitrites.) MTF study authors called the increase in inhalant use "among younger studentsone of the more troublesome findings this year." Researchers were unsure what caused the increase.
Information on nitrite usage, particularly among eighth-grade and tenth-grade students, was not available, but nitrite abuse appears to have trickled down to adolescents. About 4 out of every 300 twelfth graders surveyed admitted using a nitrite of some kind at some point in their lives. The perceived availability of amyl and butyl nitrites (the ease with which seniors said they would be able to get the drugs) was high: 20 percent of those surveyed said it would be "fairly easy" or "very easy" to obtain.
Trends in the United Kingdom
A similar trend has occurred in the United Kingdom. Neville Hodgkinson, writing in the London Sunday Times in 1994, revealed the results of a study of amyl nitrite use among fourteen and fifteen year olds in Manchester, United Kingdom. Fourteen percent of the students in the study admitted that they had sniffed poppers in the past. "It has become increasingly popular as a 'rave' drug [but now it's] even for playground use," concluded Hodgkinson.
In a 2003 Guardian article, Alan Travis reported: "Illegal drug use in England and Wales remains among the highest in Europe with around 4 million people2% of the population between 16 and 59aving used some kind of illicit substance in the last year But the new figures from the British Crime Survey," added Travis, "showthat the legal prescription drug amyl nitrite or poppers is now more widely used by 16 to 24-year-olds."
Effects on the Body
British writer Georgie Dales admits to having manufactured illegal drugs with her classmates many years ago when they were young chemistry students. She described poppers in the London Independent Sunday as "a heady brew which when sniffed makes the heart race and the head spin as it kills a couple of million brain cells." She and her cohorts had plans to manufacture more illicit drugs, but, as she put it, "Luckily, we got busted first."
Amyl nitrite is absorbed into the bloodstream rapidly and reaches the brain quickly, with effects usually beginning ten to fifteen seconds after inhaling. The initial effects include an almost immediate sense of happiness and pleasure called a "head rush," or simply a "rush." The is caused by a temporary cut in the amount of oxygen to the brain and the faster pumping of the heart. These feelings last just two to five minutes and are usually followed by a headache.
Amyl nitrite and other poppers tend to impair the judgment of the user, increasing the likelihood that he or she will make bad decisionsspecially when it comes to sexual behavior. Virtually every available reference source on nitrites states that these drugs cause a decrease in the user's inhibitionsInner thoughts that keep people from engaging in certain activities., providing a sense of wellbeing, intensified emotions, and enhanced sexual desire. People with lowered inhibitions tend to take more chances and engage in riskier behavior than they would if they were not high.
Poppers cause confusion, dizziness, giddiness, drowsiness, facial flushing, skin irritations around the mouth and nose, and a slowed perception of time, not to mention bad breath. They also cause certain muscles in the body to relax involuntarily. Despite these side effects, users claim that nitrites heighten their sense of sexual arousal.
Sniffing amyl nitrite can be dangerous to anyone because nitrites reduce blood pressure. The inhalation of nitrites by pregnant women or by people with the blood condition , the eye disease glaucoma, high blood pressure, heart disease, respiratory (or breathing) problems, or a recent injury to the head sets the stage for extremely severe health risks, and possibly death, according to the NIDA. Poppers can also trigger a short-term deficiency of oxygen reaching the tissues of the body, a condition called hypoxiaA dangerous condition brought on by an inadequate amount of oxygen circulating throughout the body..
Overdose symptoms include nausea, vomiting, dangerously low blood pressure, difficulty breathing, cold skin, blue lips or fingernails, a rapid heartbeat, an unbearable headache and/or a strong feeling of pressure in the head, and eventual unconsciousness. The inhalation of nitrites can damage red blood cells and affect the blood's ability to carry oxygen from the lungs to the rest of the body. Swallowing nitrites can be fatal.
Other long-term effects of popper use are unclear. Mood swings and personality changes have been reported but have not been studied. Tolerance to nitrites develops with repeated use.
Recent data from the NIDA indicate that the inhalation of nitrites can damage the cells of the immune system and make it more difficult for users to fight off certain infections. Among HIV-positive individuals (people who test positive for the human immunodeficiency virus, which can lead to AIDS), amyl nitrite usage can increase the rate at which the virus multiplies. The higher the number of viral cells in a person's body, the greater the risk for developing AIDS. In a 2004 article for AIDS Treatment News, John S. James reported on a United States-based study of infections among men who have sex with men. Nearly half the men in the study used poppers, "suggesting a potentially large impact on the spread of HIV." James also noted that animals exposed to poppers have shown an increased risk of "cancer growth and bacterial growth, probably by suppressing the animals' natural immunity."
Reactions with Other Drugs or Substances
Sniffing amyl nitrite is dangerous. Combining amyl nitrite use with other drugs or alcohol can be deadly. The effects of nitrites are intensified by substances such as aspirin, high blood pressure medication, and alcohol. Drug users frequently use nitrites to enhance the high brought on by the other illicit drugs they takearijuana, cocaine, methamphetamines, and hallucinogens, among others. Doing so increases the risk of harmful reactions. According to various British sources, a majority of young people at dance clubs and raves in the early 2000s regularly used more than one drug at a time, with amyl nitrite often part of the mix.
Amyl nitrite is particularly dangerous when combined with the prescription drug Viagra, used to help men who have problems with their sexual performance. Tobias Jones reported in the London Independent Sunday that "Viagra can have a lethal effect if mixed with amyl nitrite 'poppers."' Since both act to dilate blood vessels, a mixture of the two can cause blood pressure to drop to dangerously low levels. This can lead to a heart attack, , coma, or death.
Treatment for Habitual Users
"We really don't know exactly why the nitrites have the mental effects that make them attractive for people to use," explained Cynthia Kuhn and her coauthors in the 2003 edition of Buzzed: The Straight Facts about the Most Used and Abused Drugs from Alcohol to Ecstasy. Nitrites, in fact, are not considered addictive substances. The biggest problem for amyl nitrite abusers stems from their tendency to combine it with other drugs. Habitual nitrite sniffers are likely to benefit from drug dependency treatment programs, including counseling.
Education and knowledge regarding the dangers of inhaling nitrites is a key to preventing their use. Studies show that most youths who try drugs do so because of peer pressure. Therefore, it is important that young people not only resist the pressure, but try to persuade friends who are using amyl nitriter abusing any drugo get help.
Studies and surveys in the United States and the United Kingdom show that people who use poppers generally tend to underperform academically and are less likely to graduate from high school. Historical trends show that dropouts are more likely to end up with low-paying jobs or to become part of the welfare system. In addition, a number of studies show that people who abuse drugs are much more prone to illness, particularly viruses and other infections. Unlike other inhalants, amyl nitrite is abused primarily because it is believed to enhance sexual pleasure and performance through loss of inhibition. Users often engage in unsafe sex and are at a much greater risk for contracting sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV.
Laws governing the possession, use, or sale of nitrites can seem very confusing. Not all nitrites are considered drugs. In fact, of all the nitrites used as inhalants, only amyl nitrite is classified as a drug. In the United States, the only legal way to get amyl nitrite is by prescription. The other nitrites fall into a different category. These substances are not considered foods or drugs, and this is where the legal complexities begin.
The FDA made the possession, use, or sale of amyl nitrite without a prescription illegal in the United States in 1969. In 1988, the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission banned the sale of butyl nitrite, and the law was amended, or changed, in 1990 to include a broader range of nitrites. The laws regarding the possession, use, or sale of poppers in the United States vary from state to state but usually involve prison terms and stiff fines.
Still, some dishonest manufacturers have found ways to dodge the laws covering amyl and butyl nitrites. They simply make slight alterations to the chemical compounds that bind to the nitrites. One example of an altered popper is a substance called cyclohexyl nitrite, commonly sold in drug paraphernalia or "head" shops and adult bookstores as a head cleaner for VCRs. Researchers point out that regardless of the legal status, the dangers of using any type of nitrite remain the same.
In the United Kingdom, the laws concerning nitrites are somewhat different. The Medicines Act (1968) states that it is illegal to sell amyl nitrite without a prescription. However, possession or use of amyl nitrite without a prescription is not a crime. Most other nitrites sold as poppers are not covered by the Medicines Act, since distributors market them as room deodorizers and liquid incense, not medicines. Therefore, the sale, possession, and use of butyl and isobutyl nitrites are not restricted in any way under British law.
For More Information
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"Antidotes to Chemical Weapons Distributed." Seattle Post-Intelligencer (July 14, 2004): p. A3.
Dales, Georgie. "Life Stories: What I Learned in Chemistry." Independent Sunday (April 20, 2003): p. 3.
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See also: Inhalants