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What Does Smelling Salts Do

by Kristin Beck
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What Does Smelling Salts Do

What Does Smelling Salts Do

“The ancient Egyptians called it “”the breath of life.”” The Chinese called it “”a good thing,”” while Europeans referred to smelling salts as “”nose powder”” or simply sniffing powders. In fact, the word “”sniffer”” is derived from this practice.
In modern times, smelling salts have been used by physicians to revive comatose patients and those who appear to be dying, in order to determine if they were still alive. It was first used on Queen Victoria in 1853 when she suffered a fainting spell. But it wasn’t until the late 1860s that smelling salts began being used on soldiers during battle. Napoleon III’s consort, Princess Eugenie, also used them on her husband at least once, according to news reports. And the use of smelling salts has continued into our own century. They’ve even been credited with reviving Winston Churchill in 1940 after he collapsed during a speech.
But what does smelling salts do? How can they help you feel more alert? And why would anyone want to smell like rotten eggs? Read on to find out.
Odorless and colorless, smelling salts are made primarily of sodium chloride (common salt). There are several different types — some contain potassium permanganate for added disinfectant properties; others have boric acid added to reduce swelling. Some are scented with vanilla or menthol, and many are flavored with peppermint oil. All contain ammonium carbonate (ammonia), which releases its gaseous form when combined with water. Ammonia can cause burning, irritation and stinging sensations. When sprayed directly onto the face or any other part of the body, it causes intense irritation and inflammation. As such, it’s not recommended for people who suffer from allergies.
Sodium chloride itself doesn’t produce any odor. The process of adding the chemicals and flavoring agents to create a scent adds to the volume and weight of the product, making it heavier than air and thus less likely to float around in your room. That said, there are no federal guidelines regulating how much fragrance should be added to make the products smell attractive enough to lure customers to buy them. If you’re concerned about the chemical content of these products, try buying organic ones instead.
So what happens when someone uses smelling salts? Find out on the next page.
Using Smelling Salts

If you think smelling salts are only useful for medical emergencies, guess again. You may have seen someone using one before, but probably didn’t notice anything different about them. What actually occurs when you inhale smelling salts depends on the type and strength of the salts you breathe in.
When a person breathes in strong smelling salts, such as carbolic acid or chloroform, the lungs absorb oxygen through the blood stream and then pass it to the brain. The gases combine with proteins in the bloodstream to activate receptors in the olfactory nerves, located near the nostrils, causing the brain to register the presence of the stimulating agent. Then the brain signals to the muscles to contract involuntarily, which creates increased pressure within the chest cavity and results in expansion of the diaphragm. At the same time, the abdominal wall contracts, reducing the amount of air passing to the lower organs, creating a feeling of suffocation. After a few breaths, the subject usually becomes lightheaded and experiences nausea.
With weaker smelling salts, such as eucalyptus oil or camphor, the reaction is slower because the lungs take longer to absorb the gases. These milder drugs don’t trigger involuntary muscle movements. Instead, the brain registers the stimulation caused by the chemical compound. The result is a tingly sensation throughout the head and upper body. It may last up to 30 minutes, followed by drowsiness.
Some people choose to apply smelling salts by spraying them directly on the face. Others prefer to put small amounts under the tongue, where the active ingredient will dissolve faster. Still others prefer to spray the salts onto cotton gauze placed over the nose and mouth, so that the patient can inhale the fumes without direct contact with his or her skin. Inhaling smelling salts this way is known as nasally applied, nasal lavage. Nasal lavage is sometimes used by emergency personnel to treat burn victims suffering from severe burns to the face.
Because most people experience side effects when using smelling salts, including dizziness, headache, confusion, nausea and vomiting, doctors recommend taking smaller doses over shorter periods of time. However, if the symptoms persist or become worse, consult a physician immediately. Also, avoid using smelling salts if you have asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, lung disease or heart problems. If you suffer from seizures or epilepsy, consult a doctor before using smelling salts.
One final note: Don’t confuse smelling salts with aerosol sprays containing perfume oils. Although both produce similar reactions, they work differently. Aerosols containing perfumes mix alcohol with distilled water and propellants to generate tiny particles of liquid that disperse into the air. On the other hand, smelling salts are liquids that are inhaled rather than sprayed in the air.”


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