Are Smelling Salts Safe?

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on April 19, 2021
3 min read

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

SOURCES: “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.”

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