Ammonium carbonate, the active ingredient in ammonia inhalants (also known as smelling salts), is the treatment of choice for fainting prevention and treatment.
It produces near-instantaneous relief for lightheadedness. This is the only approved use for ammonia inhalants, and the approval extends to the entire general population, including children. Medical studies have shown no particular adverse effects on children.
In the United States, ammonia inhalants are available over-the-counter, without a prescription. You’ll find ammonia inhalants in most commercial first aid kits, and they should be included in all do-it-yourself first aid kits.
Ammonia inhalants combine the active ingredient with liquids such as water and isopropyl alcohol, and sometimes include fragrance. The irritating fumes cause an involuntary reflex in the lungs and nose that stimulates the respiratory system.
While ammonia inhalants are generally regarded as safe, some doctors feel that administering ammonia inhalants amounts to administering poisons to shock the system. Specifically, ammonia inhalants can seriously aggravate lung conditions such as asthma, exacerbating a bad situation.
Note: The following information should not be considered medical advice, and it is offered as background information only. Consult your doctor before administering any medication, especially to children.
Fainting is a loss of consciousness with spontaneous recovery, a symptom, not a disease. It occurs suddenly, because of insufficient oxygen in the brain, usually caused by a lack of blood flow. Often a benign set of circumstances causes the lack of blood flow, but other times, a serious underlying condition is a culprit. Fainting is a common occurrence, and 3% of emergency room patients seek medical attention for fainting.
Before fainting, people feel dizzy or lightheaded and often complain of feeling hot. When you hear people say that they “blacked out,” that’s because in the seconds before losing consciousness, their vision becomes impaired and they see nothing but black. In the next few seconds, they collapse. They may vomit after fainting, and in severe cases, their heart may stop and circulation may cease. If either of these occurs, consider it a medical emergency, call 911 immediately, and follow their instructions.
Ammonia inhalants merely treat the symptom; they do nothing for the underlying cause of the fainting.
Causes for Fainting
Benign causes for losing consciousness include:
Lack of sleep
Excessive physical activity or exercise
Standing too quickly
The stifling, hot room
The sight of blood or having one’s blood drawn
Serious Causes for Fainting
The following causes for fainting can be potentially life threatening, and require immediate medical attention:
Cardiac-related arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat), congestive heart failure
Alcohol or drug use
Loss in blood pressure or low blood pressure
Low blood sugar, especially in diabetics
Administering Ammonia Inhalants
Recovery from a benign loss of consciousness is usually spontaneous and quick, and often happens before you can locate and administer an ammonia inhalant. If the person has regained consciousness before you administer the inhalant, don’t administer it.
Remember that you should check with a doctor before administering an ammonia inhalant to a child. Since you will not have time to reach a physician between loss of consciousness and administering an ammonia inhalant, it’s best to ask your pediatrician ahead of time if your child can tolerate an ammonia inhalant.
To administer the ammonia inhalant:
- Open the package and crush the ampoule.
- Hold under the nostrils, without touching the skin.
- Discontinue use when consciousness is regained.
Do not administer ammonia inhalants if any of the following conditions apply:
The flushed face may indicate serious condition and requires medical attention
Bronchitis, asthma, or any lung disease
If the ammonia comes into contact with the eyes, seek medical attention. This can cause blindness.
Ammonium carbonate is a strong ingredient. Use it with caution and care.