Q: I remember my grandmother used to keep smelling salts in her cabinet. Can they really help someone who is feeling faint?
A: Ammonia inhalants, or smelling salts, have a long history of use in rousing people who feel faint or have passed out. Because ammonium carbonate (the active ingredient, which is sometimes combined with scents or perfume) is so noxious, a quick whiff of the salts is extremely irritating to the nasal passages, which stimulates the inhalation reflex. This quick reflex, in turn, triggers faster breathing and an increased heart rate. That action might jolt a person back into consciousness.
While smelling salts can help revive someone who is unconscious—or heading in that direction—experts say that in recent years they’ve been adopted by athletes who use them before a game or match in the hopes of getting a “rush” that will help them perform better, even in the absence of any evidence that this works.
More worrisome is that smelling salts have been employed by trainers to help a player or competitor back to alertness after being dazed as the result of a head injury. This can prevent the athlete from being properly evaluated and diagnosed, and could potentially mask the seriousness of the injury. Another worry is that an injured athlete may, upon the first whiff of ammonia, jerk his or her head and aggravate the injury.
The FDA has approved smelling salts for the treatment of fainting. Having said that, they have limited medical use. Moreover, inhaling high doses of ammonium carbonate can cause trouble breathing and severe lung damage.
This article first appeared in the January 2020 issue of UC Berkeley Health After 50.
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