Why Do I Smell Ammonia
“Ammonia is used as a fertilizer and industrial chemical for many purposes, including the production of plastics. It’s also added to pool-water sanitizers to kill bacteria that may make people sick. On its own, though, it doesn’t have much pleasant aroma. But if you’re dehydrated, your body produces more ammonia than usual, which gives off that distinctive, foul smelling smell.
The term “”ammonia”” comes from the Latin word ammoniare meaning to sprinkle with ammonia (or even just to sprinkle), since ancient times farmers sprinkled their fields with urine to fertilize them. This practice probably originated in India where there were no natural sources of nitrogen available. The Romans discovered this process worked well on their crops, so they started using urine to fertilize their plants. In fact, Roman poet Ovid wrote about having to pee into his garden one hot summer day because he was afraid the sweat would burn his plants.
Today, ammonia is still produced by mixing urea — a waste product of protein metabolism — with either phosphoric acid or sulfuric acid at a ratio of 3 parts urea to 2 parts acid, then diluting with water. Urea is a colorless crystalline solid that smells like mildew and fish. When mixed with acid, however, it releases hydrogen gas, giving off a pungent ammonia odor.
Although we associate ammonia mostly with unpleasant odors, some people actually use it as a disinfectant. For example, hospitals use chlorine dioxide solutions containing sodium hypochlorite. That chemical compound breaks down into free chlorine and oxygen. As part of the reaction, it generates pure ammonia that disinfects everything in its path.
But why do we secrete ammonia? And what does it mean when our bodies smell of it? More importantly, will drinking too little water give us this same bad taste in our mouth? Read on to find out.
Smelling Like Ammonia FAQ
What causes the ammonia smell when we urinate? If we hold our breath while we go to the bathroom, the ammonia smell disappears. That means the ammonia isn’t coming from inside our bodies; rather, it’s being released through the pores of our skin. We secrete small amounts of ammonia throughout the course of each day, but when our bodies get dehydrated, the amount increases dramatically.
When our blood loses water, our kidneys release excess urea into the bloodstream, and as long as there are sufficient levels of water, the liver converts most of the urea into ammonia. Once the blood becomes less hydrated, however, the liver cannot produce enough ammonia, so the extra urea gets converted into allantoin instead. Allantoin is a sugar derivative that acts as a buffer against dehydration and protects cells from damage.
When our blood pressure drops, the heart sends less blood to our legs, resulting in a lower concentration of circulating urea and therefore ammonia. The reason ammonia is secreted through our skin is that our bodies need to replenish the minerals lost during sweating. Sweating takes place when our temperature rises above 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degrees Celsius). Our sweat contains salts, proteins, enzymes and other substances necessary to keep our internal organs healthy. Since ammonia is a toxic substance, we excrete it outside of our bodies via sweat.
If our blood volume decreases below normal ranges, such as after surgery, or if we suffer from certain diseases, our bodies may begin to secrete larger quantities of ammonia. These conditions include diabetes, kidney disease, low blood pressure, cancer and liver disorders.
How old is the oldest person known to have had a urinary tract infection? A 5,300-year-old woman who lived in Switzerland suffered from recurrent UTIs. She apparently didn’t have access to clean water or modern methods of preventing infections, so she probably contracted UTIs as often as once every year.
Can we reduce the ammonia smell? Drinking plenty of water helps flush the toxins out of our system. It also reduces the amount of ammonia our bodies secrete. To further decrease the ammonia smell, try adding lemon juice to your bath water. Lemon juice has a pH level similar to that of urine, so it effectively neutralizes the alkaline effect caused by ammonia. While soaking in the tub, add 1 teaspoon of baking soda per cup of water. Baking soda reacts with the ammonia odor to create carbon dioxide, making the air around you fresher. Finally, don’t forget to take care of yourself. Good hygiene habits, such as avoiding smoking, help prevent bacteria growth and spread.
In 1835, French chemist Michel-Eugène Chevreul identified ammonia as a yellow liquid. He named it after NH, the prefix for ordinary hydrogen. NH3 stands for ammine, which refers to compounds that contain only one atom of nitrogen bonded to three atoms of hydrogen. Ammonia itself is called an ammonium ion.