All About Smelling Ammonia Salts

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Ammonia Inhalants (AIs) are commonly referred to as smelling salts, ammonia capsules, or ammonia salts and historically have been used for the prevention and treatment of fainting, dizziness, and light-headedness.

Smelling salts’, are often used to enhance performance in sports competitions and prior to heavy resistance training bouts.  AIs are becoming more widespread among athletes and lifters attempting to gain an edge or increase strength or performance.

AI use is common among various athletes as a means of increasing focus or ‘‘psyching up,’’ and it has been speculated that AIs are most commonly used for their purported benefit of increasing muscular strength for short periods of time. The use of AIs can most commonly be observed anecdotally among powerlifters, weightlifters, and track and field athletes, as well as within sports such as boxing, football, hockey, and mixed martial arts.

Evidence of use of Ammonia salts exist, as early as 13th century, mainly for medical purposes. Ammonium carbonate, the active ingredient in AIs, is often combined with scents or perfumes, giving AIs the more accurate name of aromatic spirits of ammonia (NH3).

(Ammonia is a chemical that is made both by humans and by nature. It is made up of one part nitrogen (N) and three parts hydrogen (H3). The amount of ammonia manufactured every year by humans is almost equal to the amount produced by nature every year.

Ammonia is a colourless gas with a very sharp odour. Ammonia in this form is also known as ammonia gas or anhydrous (“without water”) ammonia. Ammonia gas can also be compressed and becomes a liquid under pressure. The odour of ammonia is familiar to most people because ammonia is used in smelling salts, household cleaners, and window cleaning products.

Ammonia is very important to plant, animal, and human life. It is found in water, soil, and air, and is a source of much needed nitrogen for plants and animals. Most of the ammonia in the environment comes from the natural breakdown of manure and dead plants and animals.

Eighty percent of all manufactured ammonia is used as fertilizer. A third of this is applied directly to soil as pure ammonia. The rest is used to make other fertilizers that contain ammonium compounds, usually ammonium salts. These fertilizers are used to provide nitrogen to plants. Ammonia is also used to manufacture synthetic fibres, plastics, and explosives. Many cleaning products also contain ammonia in the form of ammonium ions.)

Ammonium carbonate (a solid form of ammonia that when mixed with water creates ammonia gas), is characterized as a respiratory stimulant that exerts its physiological effect when inhaled or sniffed. When inhaled, it causes a rapid and extreme irritation of the lungs, nose, and mucus membranes of the nasal cavity. The fumes from smelling salts are harsh (think of the acrid smell of bleach when you clean something).

This involuntary inhalation is reported to accelerate respiration and stimulate a “higher degree of consciousness”, allowing oxygen to flow rapidly to your brain. Significant increases in blood flow velocity in cerebral vasculature and heart rate have been reported following ammonia inhalation.

A “higher degree of consciousness” may be responsible for increasing primary attentional focus which allows the weight lifter to block out unnecessary distractions and primarily focus “on the task of executing the exercise, a psychological trait that many expert athletes utilize to perform successfully under pressure.

Athletes commonly use AIs immediately before or during competition, such as prior to attempting a 1RM in the bench press, back squat, deadlift or power clean.  AIs have also been used before the opening kick-off of a football game, between rounds of a boxing match or in locker rooms during breaks or intermissions of games. During training, their use often precedes or accompanies high-intensity strength training.

The use of AIs are approved through the United States Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of fainting and may be purchased over the counter. Also, ammonia salts, aren’t banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency.

Ammonia is toxic in large amounts and should only be administered in small doses to users with no pre-existing medical condition.  Complications caused by AIs in athletes have been reported, but are extremely rare, and include lung irritation/damage, loss of consciousness and anaphylaxis (a serious life-threatening allergic reaction). People with respiratory issues such as asthma should avoid using AIs due to the potential of the lungs becoming irritated.

Ammonia is a toxic substance, and AI inhalation merely provides symptom relief and does nothing, or potentially complicates, the underlying injury. For this reason, the use of AIs has fallen out of favour among sports medicine professionals and physicians.

While there are numerous case reports of the toxicity of ammonia agents when ingested in large doses or inhaled in high concentration for prolonged periods there are, no reports of adverse health problems related to the use of smelling salts in sport.

A study, examined the impact of AIs on strength performance. Twenty-five college-aged males with at least three years resistance training experience performed as many repetitions as possible with the back squat and bench press at 85% 1RM after inhaling either AIs or placebo (Vick’sVapoRub).

There was no significant difference between the amount of repetitions performed in the back squat or the bench press after inhaling the AIs compared to the placebo. Therefore, if an individual feels that AIs do improve their performance, and has no pre-existing medical conditions that would present harm with AI use, then there are no contraindications for use in low doses. 

A study, investigated the effects of inhalants on vertical jump height and sprint time. Eight men and three women with at least two years of resistance training experience participated. Participants experienced three conditions of inhaling a smelling salt (S), menthol oil (M), or high potency ammonia (HP).

Participants performed three vertical jumps and two 20m sprints. Before each trial of jump or sprint, they took a deep breath of one of the inhalants through the nose then waited 30s before testing. However, the participants did not enhance vertical jump or sprint performance compared to baseline.

A study, hypothesized that smelling salts would stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, which may in turn improve reaction time and anaerobic performance that may improve hockey player performance.

Researchers found that, although heart rate and breathing rate were significantly elevated following the smelling salt inhalation, within six minutes of inhalation smelling salts do not serve as an ergogenic aid for reaction time or anaerobic power of hockey players.

A study, determined if the use of smelling salts would impact vertical leap or broad jump performance. Twelve participants, prior to each jump the participant had to inhale 1 of 3 randomly chosen vials containing either smelling salts/ammonia inhalant (AI), Vick’s VapoRub (VVR), or a control/no scent (CON). After a brief inhalation, they performed a maximal effort on both broad jump and vertical leap. 

The results showed no significant differences in vertical leap height or broad jump distances after inhaling the various substances. These results support previous research showing that smelling salts/ammonia inhalants have no impact on muscular power performance.

A study, examined the effects of smelling salts on psychophysiological responses and performance during repeated high-intensity exercise. Physically active females completed two repeated high-intensity sprint trials with Control (water) or Ammonia Inhalants.

The results indicate that overall power was significantly higher with smelling salt as compared to Control, despite a lack of changes in fatigue index. Heart rate and rate of perceived exertion (RPE) were not different with varying treatments. Perceived alertness and psyched-up energy were significantly higher with smelling salts versus Control.

A study, investigated the influence of ammonia inhalants on lower body power and maximal isometric strength in trained men. Twenty experienced resistance trained men were tested for counter movement jump power, maximal force, and peak rate of force development. Assessments were performed using either an ammonia inhalant (AI), a placebo (PL), or no inhalants (N). 

The inhalation of ammonia showed a significant effect on peak rate of force development. No significant effects of trial were noted for counter movement jump power and maximal force.

Thus, the results of the present study showed a potential ergogenic effect of smelling salts on rate of force development (i.e., explosive force output), with a trend toward an improvement in maximal force production. The mechanism of action may be related to the stimulatory action of AI often reported by athletes as a “psyching-up” effect. The positive effect of AI on the rate of force development may represent an advantage in sports requiring high rates of force production.

You can find ammonia inhalants in capsules, bottles, with different fragrances added to them.

To use smelling salts, hold them at least 10cm, or about 4 inches, from your nose. Keeping them between 10 and 15cm from your nose allows the salts to work without putting you at risk of burning your nasal passages.

If you have any respiratory health issues, including asthma, it’s best to stay away from smelling salts. The irritation that smelling salts trigger could make your condition worse.

Also remember, that smelling salts are ultimately very strong stimulants. Overuse of smelling salts may lead to damage to your nasal passages. The sharp fumes from the ammonia may burn the membranes in your nostrils, but this would require frequent and heavy use of smelling salts.

(Since ammonia occurs naturally in the environment, we are regularly exposed to low levels of ammonia in air, soil, and water. Ammonia exists naturally in the air at levels between 1 and 5 parts in a billion parts of air (ppb). It is commonly found in rainwater. The ammonia levels in rivers and bays are usually less than 6 parts per million (ppm; 6 ppm=6,000 ppb). Soil typically contains about 1–5 ppm of ammonia.

The levels of ammonia vary throughout the day, as well as from season to season. Generally, ammonia levels are highest in the summer and spring. Ammonia is essential for mammals and is necessary for making DNA, RNA, and proteins. It also plays a part in maintaining acid-base balance in tissues of mammals.

Ammonia does not last very long in the environment. Because it is recycled naturally, nature has many ways of incorporating and transforming ammonia. In soil or water, plants and microorganisms rapidly take up ammonia. After fertilizer containing ammonia is applied to soil, the concentration of ammonia in soil can be more than 3,000 ppm. However, the amount of ammonia in that soil decreases to low levels in a few days. In the air, ammonia will last about 1 week.)

Ammonia has a very strong odour that is irritating and that you can smell when it is in the air at a level higher than 5 ppm. Therefore, you will probably smell ammonia before you are exposed to a concentration that may harm you. Levels of ammonia in air that cause serious effects in people are much higher than levels you would normally be exposed to at home or work. However, low levels of ammonia may harm some people with asthma and other sensitive individuals.

Commercial ammonia inhalation products typically contain 50–100 parts per million (ppm) ammonia. Most people can tolerate exposure to around 250 ppm of ammonia for under 1 hour. Exposure to 2,500–4,500 ppm of ammonia for 30 minutes or more can be fatal.

You can taste ammonia in water at levels of about 35 ppm. Lower levels than this occur naturally in food and water. Swallowing even small amounts of liquid ammonia in your household cleaner might cause burns in your mouth and throat. A few drops of liquid ammonia on the skin or in the eyes will cause burns and open sores if not washed away quickly. Exposure to larger amounts of liquid ammonia or ammonium ion in the eyes causes severe eye burns and can lead to blindness.

Ammonia can enter your body if you breathe in ammonia gas or if you swallow water or food containing ammonium salts. If you spill a liquid containing ammonia on your skin, a small amount of ammonia might enter your body through your skin; however, more ammonia will probably enter as you breathe ammonia gas from the spilled ammonia. After you breathe in ammonia, you breathe most of it out again.

The ammonia that is retained in the body is changed into ammonium compounds and carried throughout the body in seconds. If you swallow ammonia in food or water, it will get into your bloodstream and be carried throughout your body in seconds. Most of the ammonia that enters your body from food or water rapidly changes into other substances that will not harm you. The rest of this ammonia leaves your body in urine within a couple of days.