Amyl Nitrite: Physiological effects

Last modified: Thursday, 25. December 2008 - 5:31 am


Amyl nitrite is rapidly absorbed into the blood stream and quickly reaches the brain, with effects usually beginning five to 10 seconds after inhaling. The initial effects are often referred to as a “rush” or “head rush” and last from two to five minutes. It causes the walls of blood vessels to relax, resulting in lowered blood pressure. This increases pulse rate because the heart is beating faster than usual to restore normal blood pressure. It also causes facial flushing and dizziness. The dilation of blood vessels in the brain appears to trigger an increase in pressure in the brain, which may give rise to the euphoria reportedly experienced by users. Amyl nitrite also causes muscles to involuntarily relax. Adverse reactions include skin and throat irritation, nausea, and headache.

Harmful side effects

Poppers have the ability to cause asphyxia, which can cause a person to stop breathing and become unconscious, resulting in a lack of oxygen or excess carbon dioxide in the body. They can also cause a short-term deficiency of oxygen reaching the tissues of the body, a condition called hypoxia. When inhaled, amyl nitrite ions can burn sensitive mucous membranes in the throat, nose, and lungs, causing irritation, pain, coughing, bronchitis, and difficulty breathing.

Excessive use of amyl nitrite can be dangerous to anyone. However, people with anemia, diabetes, glaucoma, an overactive thyroid, or high blood pressure, or who have had a recent head injury or heart attack, are at greater risk for encountering severe health problems, according to the NIDA. Pregnant women should not use amyl nitrite or any inhalant since the chemical can cross the placenta into the fetus, causing damage. Adverse reactions and side effects may be more frequent and severe in persons over the age of 60.

Many nitrates and nitrites increase pressure in the nerves and blood vessels of the eyes, which can cause a feeling of pressure behind the eyes and a severe headache. This can lead to glaucoma, a potentially blinding eye disorder.

Amyl nitrite, as with other inhalants, have the potential to cause sudden sniffing death (SSD) syndrome. The condition is brought on by unexpected disturbances in the heart’s rhythm, causing heart failure and death. SSD syndrome can result when a user deeply inhales a chemical for its intoxicating effect. This causes a decrease in available oxygen to the body. If the user becomes startled or engages in sudden physical activity, the flow of adrenaline increases from the brain to the heart, inducing cardiac arrest. Death occurs within minutes.

Overdose symptoms include nausea, vomiting, dangerously low blood pressure, difficulty breathing, fainting, cold skin, blue lips or fingernails, rapid heartbeat, and headache or a strong feeling of pressure in the head.

Long-term health effects

The nitrite ions generated by amyl nitrite inhalation increase the body’s production of certain carcinogens, which increases the risk for cancer. They can also damage red blood cells by interfering with oxygen supply to vital tissues that can cause an often-fatal anemia. This type of poisoning happens most frequently to users who swallow rather than inhale the chemical. It requires immediate medical attention.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that recent research conducted on laboratory animals shows a possible link between the abuse of amyl nitrite and the development and progression of infectious diseases and tumors. The research indicates that inhaling nitrites and nitrates depletes many cells in the immune system and impairs the way the immune system fights infectious diseases, such as HIV, gonorrhea, syphilis, hepatitis A, and chicken pox. This also means that in people with HIV, using amyl nitrite can increase the speed at which the virus replicates. The higher a person’s viral load, the greater the risk for developing AIDS.

One problem with long-term inhalant abuse is that it can break down myelin in the body, according to a NIDA report. Myelin is a fatty tissue that surrounds many of the body’s nerve cells called neurons. The nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord are like a “command central” for the body. They transmit messages that control just about everything the body does. If the myelin breaks down, the nerve cells may not be able to transmit messages.

This could happen in the frontal cortex, the area of the brain that solves complex problems and plans for the future. If inhalants make their way into the brain’s cerebellum, which controls movement and coordination, they can make a person move more slowly or clumsily. Studies also show that nerve cells in the brain’s hippocampus can be damaged by inhalants. Since the hippocampus controls memory, a person who repeatedly uses inhalants may lose the ability to learn new things, or may have a hard time keeping track of simple conversations.

Many persons who have abused inhalants, especially for prolonged periods of several days, find they have a strong need to continue using them. Compulsive use and a mild withdrawal syndrome can occur with long-term inhalant abuse.

Other long-term effects of amyl nitrite use are unclear. Mood swings and personality changes have been reported but have not been studied. Tolerance to poppers develops on repeated exposure. Chemical dependence does not occur, and the drugs have a low potential for psychological dependence.


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