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All the Things You Can Use Poppers For — Besides Anal Sex

From relieving chest pain to cleaning pots and pans, the historic gay club drug has more uses than just relaxing your sphincter

It’s been 30 years since I Love Lucy star Lucille Ball passed away, but new revelations about her life have revealed a surprising finding: She loved poppers. And I don’t mean the jalapeño kind.

For the uninitiated, “poppers” is the street name for a class of drugs called alkyl nitrites, which refers to a smattering of toxic liquids like amyl or butyl nitrite whose vapors you inhale for an intense, laughably short headrush-type high. Usually, the feeling tops out at around 30 seconds then rapidly dissipates, but not before making some people feel euphoric, giggly, tingly, flushed or like their entire body is throbbing (or, if you’re like me, they just give you a massive headache).

The reason most people love them isn’t for the tingles, though — they’re coveted beause they loosen your anal sphincters. Poppers’ main method of action is to cause rapid, body-wise vasodilation and smooth muscle relaxation, an effect that can relax the anus, making anal penetration easier and more pleasurable for anyone with a butt. For that reason, they’ve been historically popular with gay men, but since people of all genders and orientations have anal sex and poppers have many other desirable effects, they’ve fast become the go-to party drug of choice for every man, woman and adult child looking for a cheap, non-committal high they can buy over-the-counter at a sex shop.

Now, I don’t want to make any judgments about Ball’s life, but it’s likely that pleasant, short-term anal slackening wasn’t what the 77-year-old was using them for (she was an avid gay ally and advocate though, so who knows — maybe she picked up some tricks). Instead, as was theorized on a recent Autopsy, Last Hours of… episode about her death, she was using the ever-popular club drug to treat her heart and chest pain. A medicinal pop, if you will.

That got me thinking: If poppers are just a simple vasodilator and a muscle relaxant — and nearly every organ and muscle in your body could benefit from a little extra blood flow and relaxation — what else could they be used for? Also, since they’re marketed under false names like “video head cleaners” and “nail polish removers” so they can legally be sold in stores, might they have some handy, Home Improvement-style applications as well?

As it turns out, the answer is a reluctant, skeptical yes. Provided you use them infrequently and with an abundance of caution — they’re unbelievably toxic if you overuse them and an arguably imperfect solution for anything other than anal acrobatics  — you can use them for all sorts of surprising things. Let’s start with Ball’s favorite use…

Heart and Chest Pain Treatment

Before poppers ascended the party drug ladder from obscure accessory of gay nightlife to a substance universally revered for opening people’s buttholes like Creed in “With Arms Wide Open,” they were actually used to treat heart and chest pains associated with angina, a painful condition caused by clogged arteries in the heart. Because they dilated blood vessels, they allowed the heart to get more oxygen, thereby relieving the pain and shortness of breath associated with the condition (much like nitroglycerin). However, while they were used specifically for this purpose for over a hundred years after their invention in 1844, they fell out of favor because of all the side effects they had. That’s why Dr. Elizabeth Hartney warns that you should never use them for the treatment of angina, or any other cardiovascular condition, without the supervision of a doctor.

To Combat Cyanide Poisoning

Okay, so, say you tripped and fell and some cyanide accidentally got in your mouth. If you get yourself to a doctor fast enough, it’s possible you’ll be given a trio of drugs to combat the poisoning, one of which is — you guessed it — poppers. According to studies, amyl nitrite can help undo the potentially fatal binding of cyanide to hemoglobin (which knocks off oxygen molecule), leaving hemoglobin ready to bind to oxygen again (which is what saves you). The vasodilation it provides also helps: widening the blood vessels, if even only for 10 crazy seconds, can allow more oxygenated blood to course through the body while the other drugs kick in.

But because poppers cause blood pressure to drop so precipitously, dosage is hard to control and it can cause a serious adverse reaction in people with other health conditions. For that reason, it’s also fallen out of favor as a medical treatment for this specific purpose.

Helping With (Some) Headaches

There are roughly as many types of headaches as there are stars in the sky, but if you’re having a vasoconstrictive headache (the type caused by a tightening of the blood vessels in your brain), it’s possible that a whiff of Man Scent might provide some momentary relief. You can usually tell you’re having this type because it comes on suddenly and is usually severe. For that reason, it’s often described as a “thunderclap” headache.

However, as Harvard neurology professor Louis R. Caplan warns, poppers might also make the headache that follows much worse, so it’s best if you proceed with caution. It’s far better then (relatively speaking, of course) to see if they’ll help your headache when it isn’t a migraine (which usually results from blood vessels in the brain that are dilated too much), and when the vasoconstriction is more chronic, such as in Reversible Cerebral Vasoconstriction Syndrome.

(Maybe) Making You Horny

Feeling un-horny? Poppers might help… for some people. While they make most people dizzy and lightheaded at best, a small number of people report that they can kick-start their libido by bringing a rush of blood to their genitals. As one VICE writer put it, “Poppers don’t make you horny, they make you want to fuck.” However, if you’re going to use it for this purpose, don’t overdo it — keep it to one or two whiffs tops, because the potential headache and possible erectile dysfunction could have the opposite effect you intended. Boo.

Aiding Deepthroating

Because poppers can relax the smooth muscle of the throat, they can help some people with sensitive gag reflexes put penises (or whatever else) further back in their mouth without choking, something that can be helpful for deepthroating if that’s your particular cup of sex tea. Obviously, this effect wears off in a matter of seconds, so it’s not exactly a sustainable solution, but if you’ve been trying to put something in the back of your throat and haven’t been succeeding, it might give you the extra bit of relaxation you need to get there (no guarantees, though). Keep in mind that poppers make some people nauseous, and if you inhale them wrong, it can burn the back of your throat, so, if you want to use them as a blowjob enhancer, this would be a great thing to communicate with your partner about beforehand.

Helping You Orgasm From Other Types of Sex

Anal sex gets all the attention when it comes to poppers, but as it turns out, it can really enhance clitoral, vaginal and penile orgasms as well. Because it quickly and intensely dilates blood vessels, it can bring an extra rush of oxygen-rich blood to these areas, filling the erectile tissue further and making it more sensitive to the touch. It can also relax your muscles, which can make penetration feel better (often, pain or discomfort during vaginal or anal sex is related to the smooth muscle of the vagina or the anal sphincters clenching too tightly). Hit one at a key moment, and it could elevate an ordinary orgasm to one to write home about.

According to Cynthia Kuhn, professor of pharmacology at Duke University Medical School, part of the reason a poppers-fueled orgasm can feel so good is the dizziness and lightheadedness that accompany it. “Some people like to feel dizzy and disoriented, so perhaps for them this adds to the orgasmic moment to produce an even greater sense of climax,” she told Salon. (Interestingly, some people get lightheaded and even faint after intense orgasms because their blood pressure is too low, but that’s a different topic entirely.)

A word of caution, though: If you’re going to sniff poppers during sex, stop bouncing and flailing around first. If you’re thrusting, being thrusted into or are gyrating in some way, you could spill the liquid into yourself, which is a great way to get excruciating chemical burns. On that note — you never want to fuck with the liquid part of poppers. If you drink it, you’ll probably die, and if it touches your skin, the skin cells will die too. Stick to infrequent sniffing if you want to live!

Cleaning Uncleanable Shit-Grease Off Your Pots and Pans

Inspired by a VICE article on poppers’ handy-dandy household uses (man, they write about poppers a lot), I took a bottle of Jungle Juice Platinum to my teapot, which is so crusted over with rust and calcified, radioactive L.A. water that it looks like it was pulled from the black depths of an architectural dig. I applied some of the noxious fluid to a rag and got to scrubbing, and within seconds, I had scraped through the filth to reveal the beautiful, glistening true skin of my teapot. I was slightly aghast that anything could work so well, so I took a celebratory inhale of the fume radiating off my freshly denuded teamaker and… instantly got a headache.

Murdering Mildew

I have this one camping shirt I love more than life itself. It’s vintage, black, has a sassy leather neck tassel thing and is made entirely of thick, felt-like cotton. I’d wear it every day if I could, but no such luck — after 60 years of being a shirt, it’s developed some sort of irrepressible, immortal mildew situation that can’t be remedied with any Google-able household cure.

I’ve long grown tired of trying to get the smell out (I’ve tried everything), so since it’s just been dangling shamefully in my closet contributing nothing to my life and I have nothing to lose by ruining it, I decided to spill some poppers on it to see if it would help. First, I went outside so I didn’t suffocate myself in fumes. Then, I poured little droplets of the liquid around the area of the shirt that smelled the worst, feeling my butthole loosen in approval as I MacGyver’d a pioneering new domestic solution to mildew.

I left it outside in the sun for a few hours to dry, then washed it four or five times with detergent to get the smell out. When all was said and done, not only had the noxious smell of poppers dissipated, but the incorrigible mildew had too. My shirt seemed a little thinner in the areas I’d treated with the historic gay club drug, but did I care? I did not. I had a revitalized shirt, a head rush and a few less brain cells from the fumes.

What could be better?