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Are Smelling Salts Bad For You

by Kristin Beck
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Are Smelling Salts Bad For You

Are Smelling Salts Bad For You

“If you’ve ever been arrested, then chances are good that you were given smelling salts — also known as amyl nitrate (or other names) — while you were being booked into jail. Or maybe you used some yourself when you got hit with an odoriferous fart during a movie theater screening of “”The Lion King.”” The chemicals inside these salts help stimulate the brain, making it easier to breathe and helping us to stand up from sitting or laying down positions. They’re also commonly called “”stink bombs”” because they release the smell of rotting eggs or vomit, which makes people want to avoid inhaling them.
But what if you don’t need them? What happens when we go overboard on smelling salts? And how do they affect our bodies? Find out on the next page.
Smelling Salts: What Are They Made Of?
Ammonia — a chemical compound composed of nitrogen and hydrogen atoms — is one of the primary ingredients found in many common household products, including cleaning solutions, deodorants, hair spray and nail polish remover. Ammonia was first discovered by a French chemist named Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier back in 1783. He used it to test the properties of oxygen and decided to call it azote (“”azote,”” meaning nitrogen).
In its pure form, ammonia is extremely poisonous. It irritates mucus membranes, especially in the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. If ingested, ammonia causes nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, breathing problems and even coma. When released through the skin, however, ammonia quickly transforms into nitric acid, which can burn through clothing and flesh within seconds. Nitric acid is so dangerous that it has earned the nickname “”the invisible poisoner”” due to its ability to kill without leaving any traces behind [sources: CDC; MedlinePlus].
Although ammonia is often combined with other substances like menthol, eucalyptol and camphor oils to create smelling salts, the most popular version is made entirely of ammonium carbonate — a salt derived from ammonia. In fact, there are more than 1,000 different types of smelling salts available today, each designed to provide relief to specific ailments ranging from flatulence to asthma attacks. Some use potassium bicarbonate instead, and others include potassium chloride, sodium sulfate, calcium chloride and even baking soda among their list of ingredients.
How Do People Use Smelling Salts?
People have been using smelling salts for thousands of years. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, recommended smelling salts as early as 400 B.C., and physicians still rely on them today. But why exactly does someone want to hold onto an air freshener-sized bottle of ammonia and squirt it all over themselves or another person?
Most people who use smelling salts believe it helps them relax. A study conducted in 2003 showed that those who regularly used smelling salts had lower levels of stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol than did participants who didn’t take part in this type of therapy. Another study published in 2009 concluded that smelling salts could be beneficial for patients suffering from depression and anxiety disorders, although more research needs to be done before this claim can be verified.
Regardless of whether researchers come to the same conclusion about their effectiveness, there are several reasons why people might choose to administer smelling salts. One reason may simply be to calm someone down after a stressful situation. Many police officers, firefighters and paramedics have reported that administering smelling salts helped them cope better when dealing with emotionally charged situations like car accidents. This seems to be true even for children. During a 2007 study by pediatric nurse practitioners, children who took smelling salts experienced less anxiety before undergoing medical procedures than their counterparts who did not receive smelling salts.
Another possible benefit of smelling salts comes from their ability to relieve nasal congestion. According to Mayo Clinic physician Dr. James Naughton, sniffing salts can reduce swelling around nostrils and improve airflow. However, he cautions against overdosing on smelling salts, since doing so can cause severe harm to the respiratory system.
Is There Any Harm in Using Smelling Salts?
Unfortunately, there are certain risks involved in using smelling salts. First off, ammonia burns. Even though it’s only present in small amounts, it will quickly damage the lining of your nose, causing serious discomfort and potentially permanent scarring. Second, ammonia releases free radicals, which attack healthy cells and result in cancer. Third, ammonia isn’t easily absorbed by the body, so long-term exposure can lead to liver damage, kidney failure and even death. Fourth, if you’re prone to seizures, taking smelling salts can spark epileptic fits. Finally, if you’re pregnant, smelling salts should definitely stay away from your baby. Although ammonia doesn’t seem to pose harmful effects on growing fetuses, it can trigger premature labor.
So if you decide to give smelling salts a try, make sure you follow dosage instructions carefully. Be aware that ammonia becomes increasingly concentrated whenever it mixes with water, so you’ll need to dilute it with alcohol to keep the concentration below 0.5 percent. Also, never consume smelling salts, since they contain enough ammonia to seriously injure you.
For more information on smelling salts and related topics, please check out the links on the following page.
A 2004 study published in the Journal of Hospital Infection found no evidence that smelling salts actually increase infection rates among hospitalized patients. Instead, the authors speculated that the rise in infections seen in hospitals came from poor hygiene practices rather than the administration of smelling salts.”

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