Smelling salts have been effectively used to revive consciousness since ages. Victorian accounts mention their use to revive women who experienced sudden bouts of fainting fits. Even though times have changed and medical field has witnessed significant development, the use of smelling salts continues. Of late, these chemical compounds have become important constituents of a sportsman's medical kit. Their benefits may not be backed by scientific evidence as of today, but their adverse effects, which range from spine injury to misdiagnoses of a complicated medical condition, surely are.
Smelling salts, also referred to as spirit of hartshorn or sal volatile, are basically combination of ammonium carbonate and perfume which are used as inhaling stimulants and restoratives. Most of the smelling salts available today, are a mixture of dilute ammonia, water, and ethanol, and hence, should be ideally referred to as 'aromatic spirits of ammonia'. Their chemical formula is (NH4)2CO3H2O. Ammonium carbonate is the most active compound of smelling salts. Though they are effective in the treatment of headache and fainting, one should only use them when he is well-versed with their side effects.
In high concentration, ammonia can produce adverse effects on the individuals body, and therefore, one has to be careful when using smelling salts. The mixture has to be put under the nostrils of the person and he should be asked to inhale. When the person inhales, the ammonia gas released by smelling salts will enter his body and irritate the mucous membranes of the nose and lungs as a reflex. This will stimulate the muscles that control breathing and make them work faster, thus triggering proper breathing cycle and making the person active.
Smelling salts have been used to revive consciousness since a long time, as they help in reviving the falling pattern of breathing in the person losing his consciousness. In fact, the practice of using these compounds to revive people who faint continues. In boxing, for instance, the competitors are made to inhale smelling salts when they lose consciousness in knock-out bouts. Besides boxing, their use in sports like power-lifting and weightlifting has also been documented.
Are Smelling Salts Dangerous?
Anything done in excess is harmful for our body; smelling salts are no exceptions. In fact, smelling salts are also referred to as 'sal volatile' owing to their tendency of producing certain adverse reactions in our body. Inhaling them increases the respiratory rate and depth of breathing. In such circumstances, the inhalation reflex triggered by smelling salts overdose is potent enough to cause a spine injury or worsen an existing one. More importantly, even holding these salts close to the nose can trigger an involuntary neck movement as an irritation reflex, which can itself be harmful to some extent.
On a serious note, the side effects of smelling salts are even more grievous when it comes to sports-related injuries. They cannot substitute the required medical aid, such as neurological assessment. A fatal blow, which may lead to severe neurological injury, can be misdiagnosed as a minor injury when the person starts feeling better after sniffing smelling salt. It may cover the underlying cause of fatal injury, which may lead to more complicated medical condition and even lead to death.
Because of these side effects, commercially available smelling salts are either diluted to make them less hazardous, or their packets carry specific instructions about the dosage. Whether they are beneficial as stimulants and restoratives is still an issue of debate, but the adverse effects which have been discussed above surely raise some questions about their rampant use, especially in sports.