Today, some professional athletes believe smelling salts can improve performance. They can help if a person passes out. However, there are some concerns about using them for athletic performance.

Smelling salts are inhaled stimulants that increase breathing and blood flow to the brain. Despite their history of use, there is limited research into the effects of smelling salts.

Keep reading for more information on what smelling salts are, their risks, and their uses.

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Smelling salts are typically a combination of diluted ammonia, water, and ethanol. They may also be a mixture of ammonium carbonate and perfume. Both solutions offer a physical stimulant.

The stimulant effect of smelling salts is due to the ammonia, which irritates a person’s nasal and lung membranes when they sniff it. The result is that the person involuntarily inhales and starts to breathe faster, which sends more oxygen to the brain.

Historically, doctors would use smelling salts to help revive people who have fainted. However, today, athletes looking to improve performance will sometimes use smelling salts for their stimulant effect.

Smelling salts are typically safe to help someone regain consciousness after fainting. However, there is a lack of evidence regarding the safety of the repeated use of smelling salts or smelling salt use for other means.

Some concerns regarding the use of smelling salts for athletic performance 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 as concussive symptoms could be masked, resulting in delayed diagnosis. Also, rapid return to the sport with a high risk of reinjury could worsen the consequences of head injury.
  • 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.
  • The use of smelling salts without a doctor’s guidance may become a growing problem.

Commercial ammonia inhalation products typically contain 50–100 parts per million (ppm) ammonia.

Most people can tolerate exposure to around 250 ppm of ammonia for under 1 hour. However, even exposure to 50 ppm of ammonia for more than 2 hours can cause irritation to the eyes, nose, and throat.

Ammonia concentration and duration of exposure increases a person’s risk of adverse health outcomes. Exposure to 2,500–4,500 ppm of ammonia for 30 minutes or more can be fatal.

It is only legal in the United States for a person to use smelling salts to help someone regain consciousness after fainting.

However, some people may use smelling salts for other means, such as improving athletic performance and increasing alertness.

There is insufficient evidence to prove the safety or efficacy of smelling salts for any of these uses. A person should only ever use smelling salts as directed.

Research from 2014 on athletes using smelling salts as a performance booster noted no positive effects from their use. This indicates that smelling salts may offer a placebo effect, giving people confidence that their performance is increasing.

However, another study found that the use of ammonia inhalants did have a positive effect on peak force development on one strength test. Researchers suggest that this may be due to increased psychological arousal from the inhalants.

The effects of long- or short-term use of smelling salts are unknown. However, a person should avoid overusing smelling salts or holding the smelling salt too close to the nose. Concentrated exposure can damage the upper airways and lungs and cause allergic reactions.

To use smelling salts, a person should keep them 10–15 centimeters (cm) from the nose when inhaling.

For people without underlying health issues, there is no evidence to indicate that using smelling salts as directed is dangerous. However, people with asthma and respiratory problems should be aware that they can result in difficulty breathing or increased airway irritation.

Below are some common questions surrounding the use of smelling salts.

Do smelling salts kill brain cells?

It is unknown if using smelling salts can kill brain cells. It is important to only use smelling salts to help a person regain consciousness.

Are smelling salts poppers?

Smelling salts and poppers are not the same. Smelling salts are typically a diluted ammonia solution, whereas poppers is a broad term for inhalable alkyl nitrates.

Can smelling salts kill you?

Using smelling salts as directed is highly unlikely to be fatal. However, ammonia remains a toxic substance, and improper exposure does carry health risks.

Do smelling salts clear sinuses?

Some smelling salt products may claim to clear nasal congestion. However, there is insufficient evidence to prove this.

Do smelling salts expire

The expiration dates of smelling salts may vary between products. A person should always check the relevant label information before use.

People typically use smelling salts to either rejuvenate someone who has passed out or to help enhance athletic performance.

There is little risk to a healthy person using smelling salts, as long as they follow the directions and do not use smelling salts as a way to reenter a game or event after suffering an injury.

A person should still consult their doctor before using smelling salts for athletic performance to understand how it may affect their health.