Used for a high or to enhance sexual performance, they're dangerous.

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The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is urging people not to use nitrite "poppers" for sexual enhancement or recreational use, warning that they can lead to "brain death," along with other health issues.

Poppers come in liquid form in little bottles and are sold online or at adult novelty stores. They're often marketed as nail polish removers or cleaning products (even though they clearly aren't either). They're also packaged in small containers that look like energy shots.

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Credit: AdobeStock

Here's what prompted the FDA to issue the warning about poppers—and why you definitely want to steer clear.

What are nitrite poppers, exactly?

Nitrite poppers are small bottles between 10 and 40 milliliters that contain nitrites, which are chemical substances that the FDA says should not be ingested or inhaled unless you're doing it under the guidance of your health care provider.

Poppers are typically used as a recreational drug by people seeking a high or to enhance sexual performance.

"These nitrates cause relaxation of smooth muscle," Jamie Alan, PharmD, PhD, associate professor of pharmacology and toxicology at Michigan State University, tells Health. "The blood vessels contain smooth muscles, and so your blood vessels will relax." Nitrites have been used in the past for chest pain, she points out.

Using nitrites will "result in a feeling or warmth, a 'head rush' because of decreased blood pressure, and perhaps a euphoric feeling," Alan says.

Nitrates cause blood vessels to widen (aka, vasodilation), and this can happen in the penis as well, leading to an erection, Alan says. Poppers can also cause the smooth muscles in the vagina and anus to relax, too, she says. "Additionally, the 'head rush' is arousing for some people," she adds.

The FDA says nitrite poppers have been found under these names:

  • Jungle Juice
  • Extreme Formula
  • HardWare
  • Quick Silver
  • Super RUSH
  • Super RUSH Nail Polish Remover
  • Premium Ironhorse

As for why they're being passed off as nail polish removers or cleaning products, Alan says that amyl nitrate, one specific type of nitrate, "is a good nail polish remover."

Why are nitrite poppers dangerous?

The FDA says it has seen an increase in reports of people being hospitalized and even dying after using poppers. They've also caused other health issues, per the FDA, inculding:

  • Severe headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Increase in body temperature
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Extreme drops in blood pressure
  • Blood oxygen issues
  • Brain death

Poppers can also cause blood vessels to widen too much, leading to an increase in blood flow, Alan says. When that happens, she says, "you could pass out and hit your head."

Poppers can also cause a condition called methemoglobinemia, which lowers your body's ability to carry oxygen to your cells. "It can be very dangerous," Alan says.

If you end up using poppers, accidentally or otherwise, and you feel sick, Alan recommends seeking medical attention ASAP. "Go to the ER for evaluation and treatment," she says. "Ingestion can be fatal."

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