Recently there has been talk of changing the laws on poppers, rescheduling them as a serious illicit drug and criminalizing their possession.
But banning them would criminalise the normal sexual practice of many thousands of gay men. Thankfully, a public outcry has prompted a reconsideration.
So, what’s all the fuss about? Poppers are a group of chemicals called alkyl nitrites, the best-known being amyl nitrite.
Originally sold as medicine for angina (chest pain from heart disease) it came in a single use glass vial that had to be crushed or “popped” open in order to inhale the fumes, hence the name poppers.
The drug causes smooth muscles in the body to relax – including the muscles in the anal sphincter – and cause blood vessels to dilate.
The muscle relaxation allows increased comfort during anal sex and produces a brief euphoric head rush. They became popular as sex enhancers and club drugs and have been sold for many years under various euphemisms such as DVD cleaners or room deodorizers.
The TGA claimed using nitrites for muscle relaxation during anal intercourse is misuse of the drug, however one could argue that it’s pretty sex-phobic (and homophobic) to consider it misuse to use a substance to enhance anal sex.
It’s also fair to say that the muscle relaxing effect is a benefit rather than a risk, as it helps prevent anal trauma and pain.
What are the medical risks?
There are obvious immediate side effects – headache, dizziness, loss of inhibition and the risk of chemical burns to the face.
Poppers cause a drop in blood pressure, so should never be taken with Viagra or similar erection drugs. The combined effect could be catastrophic, and there have been deaths.
They increase pressure in the eyeball, so don’t use if you suffer from glaucoma.
Long-term heavy use can lead to a serious type of anaemia, called methaemoglobinaemia, making it harder to carry oxygen around your body.
There have been reports of vision loss – so-called “poppers maculopathy”, although this may be more related to chronic use of isopropyl nitrite, which is an alternative similar substance.
In summary, poppers are not completely harmless, but occasional use is unlikely to result in serious harm.
If you choose to use them — be aware of the risks. However, banning their possession may result in more harm, as people turn to potentially more dangerous alternatives.
Dr Fiona Bisshop specialises in LGBTIQ health and is available by appointment at Holdsworth House Medical Brisbane. Call (07) 3894 0794 or visit the website. For more by Dr Bisshop visit drfionabisshop.com, follow @DrFionaBisshop on Twitter, or send your health questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.