People have used smelling salts for hundreds of years to revive someone who has fainted or passed out. Today, some professional athletes use smelling salts to help boost performance before a game, weightlifting, or training.

According to an article published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, smelling salts have a long history of use in restoring a person’s senses. Their usage dates back to ancient Rome.

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

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

Smelling salts are a combination of ammonium carbonate and perfume. However, today’s smelling salts are more likely to contain diluted ammonia dissolved with water and ethanol. Both solutions offer a stimulant with restorative properties.

Traditionally, 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.

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.

Currently, there are few studies to suggest that using smelling salts has any significant short- or long-term effects on a person, as long as they use them as directed.

However, some organizations do raise concerns about using smelling salts to increase athletic alertness. According to UConn Health, some concerns 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.

In an older statement, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warn against the dangerous effects of overexposure to ammonia. However, although smelling salts contain ammonia, the CDC generally consider their effects to be beneficial and not cause for concern.

The CDC also note that exposure to large quantities of ammonia in cleaning products or other sources is more likely to cause health issues for a person, such as burns and irritation to the lungs.

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

According to research, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) still approve the use of smelling salts to revive someone who has fainted. However, there is no proof to support their use for enhanced athletic performance.

To use smelling salts effectively, a person should hold smelling salts about 10 centimeters (cm) from the nose.

The FDA-approved use of smelling salts is to revive a person who has fainted. However, some athletes believe that using smelling salts will make them more alert, perform better, and increase their overall strength.

However, recent research 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.

There are no known side effects with long-term or short-term use of smelling salts. However, a person should avoid overusing smelling salts or holding the smelling salt too close to the nose. Concentrated exposure can damage the nasal membranes.

There are no known risks to using smelling salts as directed and in small doses. However, people with any existing conditions should speak to a doctor before using smelling salts to ensure it is safe to do so.

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 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 talk to their doctor before using smelling salts for athletic performance to get an idea of how it may affect their health.