Smelling salts are a combination of ammonium carbonate and perfume used to restore or stimulate your senses. Other names include ammonia inhalant and ammonia salts.

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

Smelling salts were first used by the early Romans, but they became increasingly popular during the Victorian era for spells of dizziness or fainting. 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. Most people can safely use smelling salts in low doses as a restorative aid.

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.

warning

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.