Why Do Smelling Salts Wake You Up?

If you’ve ever wondered why smelling salts work the way they do, then this is the post for you. If you could care less about the technical, scientific aspects of these ammonia salts, then steer clear. Either way, I’ll try and be brief in my explanation.

How Smelling Salts Work

vagus nerveSmelling salts mostly work by combining the bicarbonate ammonium salt with water which causes the salt to quickly degrade into carbon dioxide and ammonia gas. That ammonia gas is what does the physiological “kick in the pants” for our powerlifting friends, quarterbacks, and such.

What Smelling Salts Do In Your Body

When the ammonia gas is inhaled in such strong concentrations, it instantly causes some pretty drastic irritation to a number of nerves along your nasal passages: the olfactory, trifacial, and vagus nerves to be exact. Particularly if you consider the vagus nerve, which is the motor nerve of the heart and bronchi. The vagus nerve is the primary mechanical reason for fainting when exposed to loud noises, lights, and other stimuli. Stimulating this nerve after overload essentially resets the function and wakes up a fainted person.

For that very reason powerlifters, football players, and other althetes (read hockey, wrestling, and more) use this same function for short boosts of adrenaline.

References & Resources For Further Reading

US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health


Medical Council: Volume 18 - January 1, 1913 J.J. Taylor – Publisher