Why Do Athletes Use Smelling Salts?

Medically Reviewed on 3/4/2021
Athletes seeking performance improvements sometimes use smelling salts for their stimulating effect.
Athletes seeking performance improvements sometimes use smelling salts for their stimulating effect.

Athletes seeking performance improvements sometimes use smelling salts for their stimulating effect. Smelling salts trigger a sharp inhalation reflex, bringing in more air and oxygen. This may result in improved alertness. It is also used when a person or an athlete passes out due to decreased blood flow to the brain (especially in a situation where a boxer gets hit on the head and faints out).

  • Smelling salts work because the human body aggressively reacts to ammonia gas in several ways.
  • When sniffed, the gas irritates the nostril and lung membranes so much so that it triggers a sharp inhalation reflex, bringing in more oxygen.
  • Sniffing smelling salts can increase a person’s blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen levels, helping brain activity and reactivating the sympathetic nervous system.
  • Many trainers feel that smelling salts provide a burst of energy and help improve focus.
  • Smelling salts are like a shot of adrenaline causing wakefulness, increased energy, and focus. It’s like a slap in the face. However, the effects of smelling salts are short lived, only lasting a few minutes that would be more than sufficient for an athlete.

What are smelling salts?

Smelling salts are restorative stimulants.

  • They are a mixture of ammonium carbonate and perfume.
  • However, diluted ammonia mixed with water and alcohol is more likely to be found in today’s smelling salts.
  • The base is ammonium carbonate, a salt with a white crystalline structure. When ammonium carbonate is mixed with water, it releases “aromatic spirits of ammonia,” and the reaction creates fumes that rise from the salts.
  • Ammonia present in smelling salts irritates the nasal and lung membranes of a person when they sniff it. The result is that the person inhales involuntarily and begins to breathe more quickly, which sends more oxygen to the brain.

Physicians have explained the action of smelling salts as a form of a chain reaction that starts with deeper breathing.

  • The faster breathing rate elevates the heart rate so that the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels can be maintained correctly.
  • This activates the sympathetic nervous system that controls the fight-or-flight response that takes over during emergency situations.
  • The entire chain of events can increase the overall strength of a person or an athlete, although it reduces fine motor skills to some extent.
  • If players feel more confident after inhaling smelling salts, it will have a positive impact on their performance.

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What are the negative aspects of smelling salts?

Although no studies have pointed out the negative effects of smelling salts, no studies have declared these salts safe either. Ammonia is a toxic and corrosive gas, and when inhaled in large quantities, it can harm the body in many ways:

  • It is recommended to hold the vial 10-15 cm away from the nostrils.
  • The use of smelling salts to revive patients who have a brain injury can be more dangerous. Even if the patient is revived, the action of the salt may hide the seriousness of the injury, which can result in complications down the line.
  • An athlete who is feeling dizzy after having taken a hard hit on the head and wants to continue playing by sniffing a salt is taking a big risk because it overrides the basic warning systems in the body.
  • The other adverse effect of this salt is that it reduces decision-making skills, which can affect the overall performance of the athlete. This may make them push through the safety limits, resulting in injuries. For an unconscious athlete, the jerks that smelling salts generate can aggravate a head or spine injury.
  • Headaches and fainting were the two treatments for which smelling salts were routinely recommended. However, ammonia fumes are not very good for the body, and its prolonged exposure should be avoided.
  • They have limited medical use. Moreover, inhaling high doses of ammonium carbonate can cause trouble breathing and severe lung damage.
  • Fumes from ammonia can be toxic, and ammonia toxicity may build up in the body. Therefore, smelling salts should only be used in small quantities and ideally in a well-ventilated or outdoor area. When not in use, the salts should be sealed so that the vapors cannot leak out.

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Medically Reviewed on 3/4/2021
References
Smelling salts: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2579444/