The primary effect of poppers on the body is involuntary smooth muscle relaxation. This primary effect leads to several potentially useful side effects, and it is for these side effects that poppers are most commonly used.
The original discovery of the effect of poppers on the body was in 1867 (the chemical base of the original poppers, amyl nitrate, had only been synthesized for the first time in 1844) when a Scottish doctor discovered that when inhaled amyl nitrate eliminated angina, or chest pain, in heart patients.
Sometime in the 1970s, amyl nitrate was discovered by the gay community and it began to be used as a party drug, particularly associated with sex parties and bathhouses. It was considered useful because a side effect of smooth muscle relaxation, which includes muscles in the throat and anus, is easier sexual intercourse since more relaxed muscles decreased potentially painful sensations.
Smooth muscle relaxation also increases blood flow and lowers blood pressure so along with the relaxation effect there was a flushing of the face and groin, a dizzying head rush, and a general sense of euphoria that lasted for several minutes.
Over time the use of amyl nitrate spread into the heterosexual disco party scene as the muscle relaxation effect extends to the vagina, and heterosexual people enjoyed the other side effects as well.
Amyl nitrate was discontinued as a medication when better drugs were discovered so for use as poppers people switched to a range of nitrites instead of nitrates, most commonly in the United States this is isobutyl nitrite which has essentially the same effects on the body as did the original nitrates.
The effects of poppers are not without risk. As poppers dilate blood vessels and lower blood pressure, other medications that have a similar effect, most notably medications for erectile dysfunction such as sildenafil (Viagra), vardenafil (Levitra), and tadalafil (Cialis), should never be mixed with poppers. People on medications for high blood pressure should also consult their prescribing physician or pharmacist about potentially negative interactions. And finally, anyone with Glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase deficiency (G6PDD) must NEVER use poppers as they can be fatal to such persons.
The above information is provided only as a reference as it is inherently unsafe and illegal for anyone to knowingly and willingly inhale the fumes of chemicals known by the street name of poppers. This information would be most useful to those who use chemicals such as isobutyl nitrite for their legitimate purpose as a solvent cleaner and who are accidentally exposed to the fumes. Knowledge of the potential side effects of the chemicals we work with is critical to our safety.