Are Smelling Salts Safe?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on December 20, 2023
5 min read

Smelling salts, sometimes called ammonia inhalants or ammonia salts, are mixtures of ammonia and other chemicals used to help revive people who've fainted. 

These strong-smelling substances have been used medicinally since the 13th century both to prevent and remedy fainting. While they've gone out of style in most medical circles, you can still buy them over the counter for personal use.

More recently, athletes have begun using smelling salts to boost performance. It's not clear how effective this is, but the practice has earned smelling salts a questionable reputation.

Smelling salts are generally safe when used as directed. But it's possible to overuse them, and they sometimes cause side effects.

What do smelling salts smell like?

Since ammonia is their main ingredient, smelling salts smell like a very strong, unpleasant version of a household cleaner. Think of the acrid smell of bleach when you clean the bathroom.


When smelling salts are put under your nose, the ammonia fumes irritate the inside of your nose. This triggers a reflex that causes you to breathe deeply in and out to clear your nasal passages, even if you've fainted.

When the resulting rush of oxygen hits your brain, your sympathetic nervous system responds with a “fight or flight” reaction that sends the hormone adrenaline through your body. This wakes you up if you've fainted, and may make you feel temporarily more alert.

Dosage and uses

In the U.S., the only FDA-approved use of smelling salts is to prevent or treat fainting. How much, how often, and how long to use them depends on why you’re using them and the strength of the product. Follow your doctor's recommendations and the package directions carefully.

To use most smelling salts, the product is held at least 4-6 inches away from the nose of the person being treated (to prevent irritation of the nasal passages). They should slowly breathe in the vapor until they wake up or stop feeling faint.


Smelling salts are fairly easy to store. Keep them at room temperature in a closed container and away from moisture.

Smelling salts are considered effective for reviving someone who is feeling faint or has fainted. But many doctors now advise people who are prone to fainting to instead lie down and take deep breaths until they recover.

Why do athletes use smelling salts?

Boxers and other athletes used to be given smelling salts after a knockout blow to help them wake up. But their use in boxing has since been banned. Some football and hockey players still use them to try to temporarily counteract the effects of head injuries, though this may keep them from getting the prompt medical attention they need.

Other athletes may use them before a game in hopes they can prevent fatigue or help them focus. Bodybuilders might inhale them before a heavy lift in the gym. But smelling salts haven't been well-studied for this purpose, and there's no evidence they have such benefits. In fact, the FDA has issued warnings to the makers of some smelling salt products for making unproven claims that their products boost energy and alertness.

When used occasionally and as directed, smelling salts have few serious effects. You might cough and sneeze, and your eyes and nose may run. Less commonly, you might have:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Headache
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Contact your doctor or a poison control center if these side effects happen to you.


If you use too much of the salts, inhale them too often, or otherwise misuse them, you could end up with more serious issues.

Overuse may damage nasal passages or lungs

Ammonia can cause chemical burns to the inside of your nose, especially if you're a heavy user of smelling salts or if you hold them too close to your nose while you inhale.

In very high doses, ammonia could seriously and permanently damage your lungs.

They can irritate your skin and eyes

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

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

They may worsen existing conditions

If you have a respiratory condition, smelling salts could make it worse because they irritate your airways. Avoid them if you have conditions such as:

You might have an allergic reaction

Some researchers say it's possible to have a serious allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) after inhaling smelling salts. If you're prone to allergies, talk to your doctor before you use them.


As smelling salts haven't been shown to boost athletic performance, they're not banned by major sports organizations such as the Olympic Committee, NBA, NFL, and NHL. However, some scientists urge coaches and athletic trainers to prohibit their use during athletic competitions. For one thing, they say, using them to psyche yourself up to push your limits raises your risk for injuries.

Further, smelling salts aren't a good way to deal with a concussion or other injury that might otherwise take you out of a game. For one thing, their effects can mask a serious injury or worsening symptoms. This can delay and complicate diagnosis and treatment.

And when you're revived with smelling salts after passing out, you may reflexively jerk your head and neck as you try to get away from the ammonia fumes. This could cause or worsen a back or neck injury.

Because the FDA hasn't approved smelling salts as a drug to increase alertness and energy, it doesn't regulate their use for this purpose. So there's no guarantee that they're effective or even safe when used that way.




Smelling salts contain ammonia, which helps revive people who've fainted. While some athletes use them in an effort to enhance performance, there's little scientific evidence that they can do this. They're not without risks, so talk to your doctor before you use them.

What do smelling salts do?

The ammonia in smelling salts irritates your airways and triggers a breathing reflex that sends lots of oxygen to your brain. This wakes you up if you've fainted and may cause a temporary rush of energy.

What type of drugs are smelling salts?

Smelling salts are ammonia inhalants. You can buy them over the counter to treat and prevent fainting. However, the FDA has not approved their use as a stimulant.