Smelling salts: Are they good or bad for you?

For hundreds of years, people have used smelling salts to relive someone who has fainted or passed away. Most professional athletes now use smelling salts to help boost performance before a game, weightlift, or workout.

Smelling salts have a long history of use in preserving a person’s senses, according to an article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. Its use dates from ancient Rome.

Keep reading about what smelling salts are, their dangers and uses, for more information.

What are smelling salts?

An athlete can use smelling salts to increase their focus and alertness.

Smelling salts are an ammonium carbonate and perfume mixture. Diluted ammonia mixed with water and ethanol is more likely to be found in today’s smelling salts, however. Both solutions offer a restorative stimulant.

Doctors will usually use smelling salts to help revive fainting people.

Today, however, athletes seeking performance improvements will sometimes use smelling salts for their stimulating effect.

Ammonia is the calming effect of smelling salts, which irritates the nasal and lung membranes of a person when they sniff it. The result is that the person inhales involuntarily and begins to breathe more quickly which sends more oxygen to the brain.

Are they bad for you?

There are currently few studies suggesting that the use of smelling salts has any major short- or long-term effects on an person, as long as they use them as directed.

Many organizations do, however, raise concerns about smelling salts to increase athletic alertness. There are certain issues, according to UConn Health, that include:

  • Some people may use smelling salts to counteract the impact of head trauma, such as concussions, to get back in the game sooner. This can be dangerous to a person’s health.
  • Sometimes, when a person initially smells the salts, their head jerks back involuntarily. This may cause additional harm to a person who has a spinal injury. However, one article indicates that this reaction may be a result of having the smelling salt held too close to the person’s nose. This implies that when administered properly, the smelling salts should not cause head jerking during the inhalation.
  • The use of smelling salts without a doctor’s guidance may become a growing problem.

The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns against the dangerous effects of over-exposure to ammonia, in an older statement. Though smelling salts contain ammonia, however, the CDC generally considers that their effects are beneficial and not cause concern.

The CDC also notes that exposure to large amounts of ammonia in cleaning products or other sources is more likely to cause a person’s health problems, like burns and lung irritation.

Smelling salts use

The primary uses of smelling salts are to either:

  • revive someone who has passed out or suffered a head injury
  • provide a temporary boost of energy

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also allows the use of smelling salts to recover someone who’s fainted, according to studies. There is no evidence to support their use for improved athletic performance however.

A person should hold smelling salts about 10 centimeters (cm) from the nose to use the smelling salts effectively.

Benefits

The use of smelling salts approved by the FDA is for reviving a person who has fainted. However, some athletes believe they’ll be more alert, perform better, and increase their overall strength by using smelling salts.

Recent research on athletes using smelling salts as a performance booster, however, did not note any positive effects from their use. This suggests that smelling salts can have a placebo effect, giving people confidence that their performance is on the increase.

Side effects

There are no known side effects with the use of smelling salts over the long or short term. A person should however avoid overexploiting salts or keeping the smelling salt too close to the nose. Concentrated exposure can harm the membranes of the nasum.

The use of smelling salts as supervised and in small doses does not pose known risks. Those with any existing conditions, however, should talk to a doctor before using smelling salts to make sure that this is safe.

Summary

Typically, people use smelling salts to either rejuvenate someone who has passed away, or help improve athletic performance.

A person using smelling salts runs little risk as long as they follow the directions and do not use smelling salts as a way to re-enter a game or event after suffering an injury.

Before using smelling salts for athletic performance, a person should still talk to their doctor to get an idea of how this can affect their health.

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