What is Smelling Salt?

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What is Smelling Salt?

Smelling Salt: Tom Brady uses them, Peyton Manning uses them, and even Muhammed Ali used them, against Henry Cooper, allegedly illegally – an allegation yet to be proven. No, it is not merely a pre-match superstition. Smelling salts are real substances that players carry with them in their kits and smell before matches to rejuvenate themselves. Although illegal in boxing, the use of smelling salts isn’t prohibited in football, hockey or powerlifting. You’ll regularly find coaches and equipment managers tossing packets to their players when they need a boost.

Smelling salts are preparation of ammonium carbonate and perfume. When sniffed, they stimulate or arouse our senses. Concentrated ammonia is the source of a noxious, powerful stench that helps in relieving faintness and restoring lucidity. In use since the 13th century, smelling salts were vehemently recommended by the British Red Cross and St. John Ambulance to be stored in first-aid boxes during the Second World War.

What is Smelling Salt?

What Are Smelling Salts

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.

How do they work?

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.

What are the short-term effects?

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.

Ammonia Smelling Salts

The usual active compound is ammonium carbonate—a colorless-to-white, crystalline solid ((NH4)2CO3). Because most modern solutions are mixed with water, they should properly be called “aromatic spirits of ammonia”. Modern solutions may also contain other products to perfume or act in conjunction with the ammonia, such as lavender oil or eucalyptus oil.

Historically, smelling salts have been used on people feeling faint,  or who have fainted. They are usually administered by others, but maybe self-administered; some at-risk groups, such as pregnant women, may be advised to keep them close to hand. 

Smelling salts are often used on athletes (particularly boxers) who have been dazed or knocked unconscious to restore consciousness and mental alertness. Smelling salts are now banned in most boxing competitions but are not harmful. 

They are also used as a form of stimulant in athletic competitions (such as powerlifting, strong man and ice hockey) to “wake up” competitors to perform better.  In 2005, Michael Strahan estimated that 70–80% of National Football League players were using smelling salts as stimulants. 

Smelling Salts Walgreens

However, their use is reminiscent of dogmatic folk remedies. Consider the guidelines published in The treatment to restore natural breathing and circulation by Dr. Peter Shepherd, Surgeon-Major, in 1878. To rouse an unconscious patient, the first three rules ask the reader to cleanse the mouth and nostrils to create a free entrance of air into these pathways and then settle into a warm bath. The remaining rules include the passing of bathing salts just under the patient’s nose and feathers to tickle his neck to revive him! Later, the pungent aroma of smelling salts was inhaled by fatigued athletes or profusely beaten boxers to resurrect their consciousness.

In case you don’t know how to self-administer them, the instructions on the label make it quite clear as two obvious arrows point towards a dot in the middle above which the label reads: “crush once and discard.” As soon as the player breaks the glass and brings it towards his nose, the noxious fumes enter his nostrils, making him writhe and wriggle in agony, but at the cost of pumping him up and getting him ready for the game.

Smelling Salts Pokemon

The fumes irritate the delicate membranes of our nose and lungs, which triggers an inhalation reflex that abruptly alters our breathing pattern. The blood vessels in the nasal passages suddenly expand, opening the floodgates for a surge of oxygen. The rampant flow of oxygen to the brain replenishes consciousness and makes one superiorly.

Tom Brady uses them, Peyton Manning uses them, and even Muhammed Ali used them, against Henry Cooper, allegedly illegally – an allegation yet to be proven. No, it is not merely a pre-match superstition. Smelling salts are real substances that players carry with them in their kits and smell before matches to rejuvenate themselves. Although illegal in boxing, the use of smelling salts isn’t prohibited in football, hockey or powerlifting. You’ll regularly find coaches and equipment managers tossing packets to their players when they need a boost.

Smelling salts are preparation of ammonium carbonate and perfume. When sniffed, they stimulate or arouse our senses. Concentrated ammonia is the source of a noxious, powerful stench that helps in relieving faintness and restoring lucidity. In use since the 13th century, smelling salts were vehemently recommended by the British Red Cross and St. John Ambulance to be stored in first-aid boxes during the Second World War.

However, their use is reminiscent of dogmatic folk remedies. Consider the guidelines published in The treatment to restore natural breathing and circulation by Dr. Peter Shepherd, Surgeon-Major, in 1878. To rouse an unconscious patient, the first three rules ask the reader to cleanse the mouth and nostrils to create a free entrance of air into these pathways and then settle into a warm bath. The remaining rules include the passing of bathing salts just under the patient’s nose and feathers to tickle his neck to revive him! Later, the pungent aroma of smelling salts was inhaled by fatigued athletes or profusely beaten boxers to resurrect their consciousness.

How do they work?

Nowadays, smelling salts are a composition of diluted ammonia dissolved in a mixture of water and alcohol, a solution that should correctly be termed “aromatic spirits of ammonia.” The solution is sheltered by a glass vial that must be cracked open like glow sticks that you see at parties.

In case you don’t know how to self-administer them, the instructions on the label make it quite clear as two obvious arrows point towards a dot in the middle above which the label reads: “crush once and discard.” As soon as the player breaks the glass and brings it towards his nose, the noxious fumes enter his nostrils, making him writhe and wriggle in agony, but at the cost of pumping him up and getting him ready for the game.

Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning sniffs smelling salts (Photo Credit: Jessica Rinaldi)

The fumes irritate the delicate membranes of our nose and lungs, which triggers an inhalation reflex that abruptly alters our breathing pattern. The blood vessels in the nasal passages suddenly expand, opening the floodgates for a surge of oxygen. The rampant flow of oxygen to the brain replenishes consciousness and makes one superiorly alert or aloof instantaneously.

Are smelling salts bad for you?

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.

Are they harmful?

Commercial smelling salts, whether solutions or capsules, particularly with higher concentrations like the ones used by athletes, are advised to be held 10-15 cm away from the nose while breathing its abhorrent fumes in order to avoid their direct burning effects on the nasal cavity. While some believe players can build a tolerance to the salts, to an extent that the perceived repugnance is drastically curtailed, others find that its terrible smell, derived from excess doses, can lead to mild, or even excruciating headaches, depending on the dosage. Wild forward Ryan Carter describes the experience as “if needles had a smell, that’s what they’d smell like.”

Still, adverse health problems or risks have yet to surface. They are virtually non-existent. However, turning to smell salts to cure unconsciousness or coerce a boxer to fight through multiple head injuries can be fatal. This is the reason why smelling salts were eventually banned in boxing. Several sports medicine textbooks have consistently criticized the use of smelling salts, as they display a propensity to exacerbate spine injuries. Because the fumes trigger a reflex that causes a violent head jerk, involuntarily pulling a player away from the source of abhorrence, smelling salts can gravely aggravate head or spinal injuries.