What Are Smelling Salts

What Are Smelling Salts
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The fumes trigger a breathing reflex, which helps restart your respiratory rhythms and send oxygen to the brain. It may seem miraculous to see a bit of salt jolt an unconscious person awake, but the pungent smell and surge of oxygen simply kickstart your consciousness.

Are Smelling Salts Safe?

Smelling salts have been used as a medicinal tool since the 13th century. They were used frequently to prevent or remedy fainting, but smelling salts have gone out of style in most medicinal circles. Smelling salts can still be purchased over-the-counter for personal use.

Even though they’ve fallen out of common use, athletes have begun using smelling salts to bolster their athletic performance. This has earned smelling salts a questionable reputation. However, smelling salts are safe to use.

How Smelling Salts Work

Smelling salts are made of a chemical, usually ammonia, that has a very strong smell. When the smelling salts are put under the nose of someone who has fainted, the sharp smell causes them to wake up again.

The fumes from smelling salts are harsh (think of the acrid smell of bleach when you clean something). When held up to someone’s nose, the fumes irritate the interior of the nose. The irritation causes the lungs to quickly breathe deeply to clear the nasal passage.

The fumes trigger a breathing reflex, which helps restart your respiratory rhythms and send oxygen to the brain. It may seem miraculous to see a bit of salt jolt an unconscious person awake, but the pungent smell and surge of oxygen simply kickstart your consciousness.

Dosage and uses. The amount, frequency, and length of time that you use smelling salts are largely dependent on why you’re using them and the strength of the salts. Consult the product’s instructions or doctor’s recommendations for proper usage.

Storage. Since smelling salts are ammonia-based, they are fairly easy to keep. Store them at room temperature in a closed container and away from moisture.

Benefits of Smelling Salts

The primary benefit of smelling salts is to resuscitate someone who has fainted. Even though they’re not widely used by doctors any more, smelling salts are still effective for this use.

Athletic trainers have found alternative uses for smelling salts. One use is to treat head injuries. An athlete may lose consciousness due to a head injury or experience a “cloudy mind” from a head injury, and smelling salts may be used as temporary self-treatment.

Athletes have turned to smelling salts for a burst of energy and focus. However, there is no evidence that they have any such benefit, and smelling salts have even been banned by some leagues.

Risks and Side Effects

When used properly, smelling salts don’t have adverse effects. Some uncommon side effects include:

  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Overuse of smelling salts may lead to damage to your nasal passages. The sharp fumes from the ammonia may burn the membranes in your nostrils, but this would require frequent and heavy use of smelling salts.

Exercise caution when using smelling salts to treat head injuries. Using smelling salts to treat a concussion or similar head injury has immediate benefits, but it can complicate further treatment. Smelling salts can mask a more severe injury or cover worsening symptoms, complicating proper neurological assessments.

When a person is resuscitated with smelling salts, they may reflexively jerk their head and neck as they attempt to move away from the ammonia fumes. This can further injure someone if they fainted due to a head injury.

Smelling salts may react poorly with preexisting conditions. People with respiratory system conditions may experience adverse reactions. Those conditions include:

  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis
  • Emphysema
  • Chronic lung disease

Avoid contact with your skin and eyes. Ammonia is a corrosive chemical that can irritate and burn what it comes in contact with. If smelling salts get into your eyes, rinse your eyes gently with water and contact poison control, your doctor, or an emergency room.

If the salts come in contact with your skin, rinse the skin with water. Don’t use an ointment to soothe the irritation. If irritation continues, call your doctor.

Safety Concerns of Smelling Salts

A growing problem in several professional sports leagues is the misuse of smelling salts. Athletes have learned that the jolting effect of smelling salts provides them with a burst of energy before a big game or crucial play, or when they start to get tired during the game.

Athletes who are experiencing concussion symptoms may turn to smelling salts to treat them. Repeated use of smelling salts in this way can put them at risk for future injuries.

While smelling salts have no recorded negative effects, the addictive use of them for a sports boost could be hazardous and open the door for future substance abuse.

Show Sources

BrainFacts.org: “A Brief History of Smelling Salts.”

British Journal of Sports Medicine: “Smelling salts.”

Cambridge Dictionary: “smelling salts.”

TheCurrent: “On The Bench: Smelling salts are the new steroids.”

MAYO CLINIC: “Aromatic Ammonia Spirit (Inhalation Route).”

UCONN HEALTH: “Improper Use of Smelling Salts A Growing Concern.”

Are Smelling Salts Bad for You?

Smelling salts combine ammonium carbonate and perfume and are used to restore or stimulate your senses. Most people can safely use smelling salts in low doses as a restorative aid.

Other names for smelling salts include ammonia inhalants and ammonia salts.

Most smelling salts you see today are aromatic spirits of ammonia, which is a mixture of ammonia, water, and alcohol.

The early Romans first used smelling salts, but these became increasingly popular during the Victorian era for dizziness or fainting spells. Today, some athletes use them for an extra boost before games or weightlifting.

Read on to learn more about smelling salts, including short-term and long-term effects, possible risks, safety tips, and alternatives you can make on your own.

Smelling salts work by releasing ammonia gas that irritates your nasal and lung membranes when you sniff them.

This irritation causes you to involuntarily inhale, which triggers respiration, allowing oxygen to flow rapidly to your brain. This makes you begin to breathe faster as a result.

If you’ve blacked out, this increase in respiration and heart rate may help you regain consciousness.

Smelling salts can cause a range of effects in a short amount of time.

If you’ve passed out, the increased respiration caused by smelling salts can help you quickly regain consciousness.

But most people use smelling salts to increase alertness and focus. Many athletes feel that this cognitive boost also temporarily increases their strength.

However, research suggests that smelling salts don’t actually enhance muscle strength. It may be more of a psychological effect caused by increased focus.

So far, there isn’t much evidence that smelling salts have long-term effects when used as directed.

According to anecdotal reports, smelling salts can sometimes cause headaches, especially when used in higher doses. Allergic reactions are also possible, though they’re rare.

Still, it’s recommended to only use smelling salts under the guidance of a medical professional.

Some medical professionals have raised concerns about the possible dangers of misusing smelling salts.

Some of the concerns are:

  • Pushing beyond limits. If using smelling salts helps you feel very energized or focused, you might push yourself past safe limits or in ways you haven’t yet trained for. This could increase your risk of injury.
  • Ignoring injuries. Smelling salts might help you feel better temporarily after an injury. You might find it easier to ignore the pain and keep going. But if you’re seriously injured, pushing on in this way could have serious consequences.
  • Exacerbating head or neck injuries. The inhalation reflex typically causes your head to jerk, which could worsen head and neck injuries.

The concerns are especially centered around the use of smelling salts to address dizziness or side effects of concussion or head injury from contact sports. Some athletes use smelling salts to get back in the game as fast as possible. But it’s important to rest after a concussion.

Doing too much too soon can not only delay healing and worsen your symptoms, but it can also put you at risk of further injury or another concussion.


At the end of the day, ammonia is a toxic substance. It’s diluted in smelling salts, but using them too frequently or holding them too close to your nose can put you at risk for severe irritation of the nose and lungs or, in very rare cases, asphyxiation and death.

In the United States, smelling salts are legal to use and approved for reviving someone who has fainted. They haven’t been approved for athletic performance or other uses, so exercise caution if you’re using them for anything other than a fainting remedy.

To use smelling salts, hold them at least 10 centimeters, or about 4 inches, from your nose. Keeping them between 10 and 15 centimeters from your nose allows the salts to work without putting you at risk of burning your nasal passages.

If you have any respiratory health issues, including asthma, it’s best to stay away from smelling salts. The irritation that smelling salts trigger could make your condition worse.

If you have any questions about using smelling salts, including whether they’re safe for you to use, don’t be afraid to talk to your healthcare provider. They can answer your questions and give you more information about how to safely use smelling salts.

Smelling salts have been used for centuries to revive people who have fainted. Athletes also use them for a quick energy or focus boost, but there’s no evidence that they actually enhance performance.

While smelling salts are generally safe, it’s important to use them only as directed. Using them too often or holding them too close to your nose can cause lasting effects.

Last medically reviewed on June 25, 2019