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Can sniffing ‘jungle juice’ cause you to go blind?

“Lots of my friends are now using ‘jungle juice’ at parties and there’s a rumour going around that sniffing it can cause you to go blind. Is that true?”

‘Jungle Juice’ is one of the brand or product names for a group of drugs known as ‘nitrites’. In the past, the most widely used nitrite was ‘amyl’, but most of the products available today belong to the alkyl nitrite family. The nitrite group of drugs, particularly amyl, used to be referred to as ‘poppers’ and certainly there are still some people that refer to them as that. Increasingly, however, young people refer to the drug by it’s brand name and ‘Jungle Juice’ is most probably the most well-known.

Nitrites act as a vasodilator, i.e., they dilate blood vessels. After inhaling the drug it causes more blood to enter the brain, resulting in the user experiencing an intense ‘head rush’. Some users also report that they get a sense of well-being and euphoria. The effects are very short-acting however, lasting no more than 30 seconds for some people and up to 3-5 minutes for others.

So can using ‘Jungle Juice’ cause you to go blind?

There have been reports of the use of amyl nitrite causing vision problems for many years, with most of the cases reported in scientific journals being linked to very heavy use over a prolonged period of time. In 1999, however, a study was published about a case of ‘irreversible blindness’ in a 15-year-old male apparently caused by inhalation of amyl nitrite over a four-day period. The authors of the study stated that they found it difficult to believe that this was due to the use of amyl and suggested there may have been other causes. Regardless, this got lots of attention and since that time there has been more discussion about the impact of nitrites on vision.

In 2014, a UK paper was released that found that ‘newer’ forms of nitrites could indeed be ‘toxic’ to people’s eyes. The researchers reported on 12 cases of people who had been using ‘poppers’ and then experienced vision problems. What they found was that some of these users had recently started using a new product containing a chemical called isopropyl nitrite. Some countries, including the UK, had recently banned certain products, and manufacturers began to ‘tweak’ the compound resulting in the manufacture and use of potentially more dangerous substances, including this one. It appears that isopropyl nitrite is toxic to the fovea (which is a small pit in the middle of the retina) and this can cause blurriness or blind spots, starting within hours or days after inhaling the drugs. Even though most of the people in this study fully recovered from their symptoms after they stopped using the products, some continued to experience vision symptoms months later.

So can ‘Jungle Juice’ cause blindness? Certainly some people have experienced vision problems after using nitrites, particularly the newer forms that appear to be available online. It’s also important to remember that heavy use over a long period of time is also more likely to be problematic. Although these products can seem like a bit of harmless fun, it’s important to remember that they can be potentially dangerous substances if people are not totally aware of what they are doing and what it is that they are actually taking …

First published: April 2019

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