To some people, nitrite inhalants and nitrous oxide are a
lot of laughs. That's one reason the chemicals are popular
among people looking for quick, cheap thrills. And nitrous
oxide (commonly known as "laughing gas") and the
nitrites mostly seem to fit the bill: They are cheap and easy
to get (sometimes legally) in clubs and boutiques and through
mail-order magazine ads.
Still, that doesn't make them harmless. According to the best
available data, nitrous oxide and other inhalants figure into
at least 100 deaths a year in the U.S. alone. That's why we
put together this pamphlet. Because once you start digging,
you realize that nitrites aren't harmless, and some of the
problems they cause aren't that funny, either. And the deeper
you dig, the more dirt you discover.
Amyl Nitrite & the High-Strung Heart More than 130 years
ago, a chemical was developed to treat angina pectoris, a
painful heart condition. Until then, physicians had often
treated heart disease with phlebotomy, a scientific name for
the unscientific technique of bleeding a patient with leeches
to rid the body of disease-causing "impurities."
That's why angina sufferers were probably pretty pleased in
1867, when a British physician tried treating the condition
with the new chemical, amyl nitrite. It worked — in
more ways than one. Because in addition to dilating the blood
vessels of the heart (which eases angina pain), amyl nitrite
also triggers a short, dizzying burst of euphoria. And it
didn't take long for that fact to get noted by euphoria seekers,
English and otherwise.
Fast Forward: How Now Although it's still not clearly understood
how, exactly, amyl works, what happens when it does sure is.
Once inhaled, it triggers a quick jump in heart rate and drop
in blood pressure and relaxes smooth muscle tissue. At the
same time, it shuts off oxygen to the inner brain, producing
a sudden, intense weakness and dizziness lasting 2-3 minutes.
Sweating and flushing may also occur. Still, if you need it,
amyl nitrite is good medicine — or was, before it was
replaced by newer drugs. In fact, the drug was so effective
— and so relatively safe — that it was sold over
the counter for years, packaged in small mesh-covered vials.
As time passed, though, amyl eventually found a larger market,
one with healthy hearts — particularly once word spread
that the drug seemed to intensify sexual orgasm. Users dubbed
the vials "poppers" and "snappers," due
to the sound they made when crushed, and snapped up what they
could from pharmacies. And even though amyl nitrite isn't
an aphrodisiac and doesn't help in treating sexual problems,
it quickly gained a reputation as a "love drug,"
especially among gay men. To counter exploding recreational
use, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration reclassified amyl
nitrite as a prescription-only drug in 1968.
Butyl & Beyond: Pursuing Hex-Tasy When amyl passed into
prescription-only status, a small swarm of little-known chemical
cousins crept out of the closet and into the noses and lungs
of a new generation of users. The most popular early stand-in
was butyl nitrite, a chemical that differs only slightly from
amyl, but packs plenty of the same punch. Sold as a "room
odorizer" or "liquid incense," to sidestep
the U.S. Food & Drug Administration's regulatory authority,
butyl was hawked under such trade names as "Locker Room"
and "Jac-Aroma" — which successfully conveyed
the awful smell of the chemical: a scent hovering somewhere
between month-old mildew and sweaty workout gear. That didn't
stop the curious, though, from trying them and may even have
added to butyl's cachet in the '80s, as use quickly spread
from gay bars to dance clubs to the general public. Still,
what happened to amyl eventually happened to butyl, too, as
the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission stepped in where
the FDA couldn't to ban the chemical in 1988.
That only made the problem morph into something else. New
act-alike chemicals appeared in almost-Biblical fashion (Amyl
begat Butyl which begat Isobutyl which begat Isoamyl which
begat Isopropyl) as each in turn was removed from the market
by federal agencies. Today, the newest nitrite is cyclohexyl
nitrite, commonly sold as a "head cleaner" for VCR's,
in a new effort to bypass controls. (For details, see the
box below.) The chemicals remain popular due to their reputation
as romance-enhancers and because they're a cheap, readily-available
alternative to other drugs. Although butyl and the newer nitrites
differ from amyl chemically, effects are roughly the same:
a brief surge of dizziness and fluttering heart rate followed
by sweating and flushing.
Nitrites are known for the speed and intensity of their effects:
A nitrite rush is near-instantaneous, but fades almost as
quickly, leading most users to inhale more — and often,
more and more. And that's where the thrills can turn to chills,
spills, and physical ills.
Short-term problems linked to use of nitrites are relatively
minor, but can be painful nonetheless. Probably the best-known
adverse effect is a feeling of pressure behind the eyes and
a multi-megawatt headache. Other side effects include nausea,
vomiting, faintness, and even blackout, particularly if the
user is drinking or taking other drugs. And given that many
users sniff at crowded parties or in noisy bars or the middle
of throbbing dance floors, nitrite blackouts carry special
problems of their own.
But those are just short-term effects. Frequent or long-term
use of nitrites can pose additional risks, including:
Glaucoma. Nitrites increase pressure in the nerves and blood
vessels in the eyes, which may contribute to this blinding
Blood Cell Damage. Nitrites damage red blood cells and may
cause an often-fatal anemia in which blood can no longer transport
oxygen. This type of poisoning happens most often to users
who swallow (rather than sniff) the chemical and requires
immediate medical treatment.
HIV/AIDS. Researchers believe that nitrites may impair immune
response and contribute to the onset of secondary infections
often seen in people with AIDS. While excessive use of nitrites
can be dangerous for anyone, some individuals are particularly
sensitive to the chemicals' stimulant action. People suffering
from anemia or high blood pressure or those who've experienced
a recent head injury are particularly at risk. And pregnant
women, of course, should avoid use of all inhalants (and all
other unnecessary chemicals) to protect their unborn children.
N20: 'Giggle Gas'
Like amyl nitrite, nitrous oxide (N2O) is a medical drug with
tons of history — this time dating back to the 18th
Commonly known as "laughing gas," nitrous is colorless
and sweet-smelling, and produces giddiness, relaxation, floating
sensations, and a mild anesthesia. Medically, it's used for
minor oral surgery and dental work. But that's only its day
After hours, laughing gas moonlights as a recreational drug,
particularly at concerts and clubs and alternative dance-culture
events, or "raves."
One source of N2O is whipped-cream containers, where it's
used as a propellant.
More commonly, though, the chemical is available in small
canisters (known as "whip-its"), which are sold
in head shops and through mail-order ads. Bigger industrial-strength
cannisters find their way out of supply houses and dentists'
offices and into the hands and heads of users via burglaries
and diversion onto the black market. And despite its long
history of use and its wide margin of safety in medical practice,
dangers linked to nitrous have increased in recent years as
unsupervised use has mounted.
Ready for another funny fact about N2O and the nitrites? Try
Commercial sales total in the tens of millions of dollars
each year — and that doesn't include the uncounted underground
trade in nitrous oxide at concerts and raves. That's a lot
of gas — and a lot of dizziness, headaches, and other
And that's not even the least funny/incongruous/weird part
of the whole nitrite/nitrous oxide sniffing scene.
Because some experts believe that nitrites produce only a
physical reaction and that any psychoactive effect is, quite
literally, all in the user's head — it's just the brain
trying to bounce back to normal and get a figurative grip
on things. Then, if you add in the risks we've already discussed,
you may just come to the same conclusion that millions of
other people have — that nitrites and nitrous oxide
don't exactly add up to tons of fun after all.
As conclusions go, you could do a lot worse.
Sidebar: Cyclohexyl: Nitrites 2000
The nitrites' most recent incarnation is cyclohexyl nitrate,
commonly sold in head shops and adult book stores as a "head
cleaner" for VCR's. Chemically, cyclohexyl is similar
to its predecessors, amyl and butyl nitrite, with an industrial-strength
odor that probably helps keep overuse down. Packaging is similar,
too, right down to the warning label on the bottle: Caution:
Flammable, harmful if swallowed, skin and eye irritant. If
swallowed, drink two glasses milk or water, induce vomiting,
call physician. For eye contact, flush with water. Avoid prolonged
inhalation in confined areas. Keep out of reach of children.
Ironically, the warning is printed on a plastic sleeve that
peels away when the bottle is opened. And even though experts
warn that such "cleaners" do more harm than good
— both to VCR heads and to users — as long as
there's a market for cheap thrills, there'll be cheap people
thrilled to bring them to the market.
Sidebar: Nitrous Oxide: Clearing the Air
One of the biggest casualties in the recent upsurge in use
of nitrous oxide has been its long-held reputation for safety.
Because as use has ballooned throughout the United States,
so have reports of serious, even life-threatening risks linked
A main danger is the risk of suffocation. Users who sniff
nitrous directly from a tank or a big enough balloon in a
small enough space can pass out — permanently, if nobody
intervenes. Using nitrous in a car can be particularly risky.
A lot of users do nitrous there, often with the windows rolled
tight, to keep the gas from escaping. It works — too
well. The result is even more suffocation deaths — along
with a growing number of fatal car wrecks linked to the "toxic
behavior" of nitrous users. There are other, less-lethal
risks, too. Excessive use can cause nausea, vomiting, and
disorientation, and since N2O impairs both motor control and
coordination, it's a good idea to avoid inhaling it while
standing. Want to avoid problems altogether? Then avoid nitrous
oxide — in fact, stay away from inhalants altogether.
They might look like a gas (even if they're a liquid or a
goo), but they can turn life into a serious pain.
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