What is ammonia sickness?

If you’ve ever worked on a farm or have come across an extremely strong smell, then chances are high that you’ve encountered ammonia. Not only does it smell funky, but prolonged exposure to ammonia can lead to what is commonly known as ammonia sickness.

Although not many people may want to talk about the dangers of this suffocating gas, knowing how it affects your health could save your life.

The Basics: Understanding Ammonia

Before we dive into what exactly constitutes ammonia sickness, let’s first break down what makes up this chemical compound.

Ammonia (NH3) – now I didn’t just randomly turn my keyboard letters off and give them a toss around (although that sounds pretty fun too) – is formed from both nitrogen and hydrogen atoms bound together by covalent bonds. It’s colorless with a sharp odor, often compared to bleach mixed with cat urine (yum).

Just think of those times you entered public restrooms where someone took their personal mushroom cloud of stink in there with them; and when desperate for relief you attempt taking shallow breaths like revising instructions for Ikea furniture assembly. That odor? Yup! Ammonia at work!

Now imagine inhaling that all day long while working in an environment permeated by NH3, causing extensive damage once inside our system.

Where Is Ammonia Found?

Great question! While synthetic plants manufacture most products containing 99% of commercial NH3(mainly urea ammonium nitrate (UAN), aqua-amonia solutions & ammonium sulphate or nitrate used in NPK fertilizers/manufacturing processes etc.) ; natural sources include Rotten Vegetation/Plant material decomposition & Waste products( Urea) from animals/humans/excretion/feces amongst others.

How Does One Get Affected By Ammonia Sickness?

While we cannot control the natural ammonia levels in specific environments, certain jobs or work situations give rise to a higher NH3 exposure than usual. And continued exposure to high levels of this compound never ends well.

Occupational Exposure

Certain professions put people more at risk for prolonged exposure to ammonia, such as those working in:

  • Fertilizer manufacturing plants
  • Livestock farms
  • Industrial cleaning solution storage areas
  • Chemical-related industries

That happens because they are frequently exposed to sources that release ammonia into the surrounding environment such as fertilizers containing nitrogen-based compounds like urea; animal wastes decaying/fermenting on farms/feedlots etc , ponds and bodies of water often contaminated by agricultural runoffs. All these criteria emit an aroma that ranges from slightly unpleasant all the way till nauseating.

Household Ammonia Exposure

On top of professional settings where you can’t escape it – what about household consumers who use bleach or cleaners containing ammonium hydroxide?

It’s essential always be cautious when using items that contain any quantity of NH3(ammonia) without proper ventilation or protective gear while engaging in just ordinary home-cleaning activities with chemical solutions especially bleach(sodium hypochlorite), toilet bowl sprays etc.

Even minor leaks could result in symptoms associated with Ammonia poisoning which should not be taken lightly!

Therefore… Be careful even if you’re cleaning up your own private mess..you wouldn’t want it coming back to haunt you later down the road(think corporate call saying “hey…do YOU recall causing THAT stinky issue”!)

Symptoms: What To Look Out For

Exposure over extended periods comes packed with many symptoms built around varying degrees but generally include:

  1. Burning sensation accompanied by redness.
  2. Coughs/sneezes followed by throbbing headaches.
  3. Scratchy throat along with hoarse voice
  4. Watery, itchy eyes with difficulty in vision (often confused for allergic reactions)
  5. Pungent odor emanating from the breath/mouth & sometimes characteristic ammonia scent often present on their body or clothes persists throughout the day.
  6. Dizziness/fainting and lightheadedness

Red flags occur when exposure masks/ goes unnoticed leading to unintended consequences including pulmonary edema(a condition where fluid accumulates in air sacs of lungs making breathing difficult) & suffocation which could prove dangerously fatal if intervention does not happen at appropriate times.

What About Short Term Exposure?

Short-term exposure causes symptoms ranging from mild respiratory distress, throat irritation to ventilation issues displayed as shortness of breath, chronic coughing fits that seem to take forever; runny noses amongst others.

It’s plausible these effects materialize immediately after heightened levels temporarily invades your system.

Diagnosis: How Is It Tested?

If you suspect prolonged exposure or have experienced any of the above-mentioned symptoms due to a work setting/violation/safe-handling practice negligence here’s what likely happens further down:

  1. Medical physical examination-based employment confirmation
  2. Skin patch testing
  3. Strict medical observation by licensed practitioners

A blood test would reveal elevated serum ammonia levels above normal baseline figures indicating intoxication while performing routine tests.

Radiology studies generally considered show widespread lung inflammation visible through X-rays helping clinicians evaluate conditions requiring immediate emergency treatment before permanent damage occurs.

Top Treatments: Live To Tell A Tale!

Knowing full well what ammonium hydroxide(ammonia) is capable of once inside our bodies must make one wonder how possible salvaging oneself medically is at early onset detection cycles and preventing irreversible damage!

Fear not! Below enlisted first aid measures will keep you frolicking safely still taking strolls around fish markets smelling like bleach(Well..almost!).

Flush Them Out

Upon suspected exposure, eyes and skin require immediate washing with clean water before seeking medical attention.

Symptomatic relief to respiratory distress such as nebulisers, inhalers may provide temporary/rescue relief aimed at recovering vital rates though more severe cases require skilled intervention arising from oxygen deprivation/hypoxia associated resultant brain injury, toxins accumulation ventricular arrhythmias & heart damage.


Medication with methylene blue proved useful in cases of acute poisoning while leaving no traces behind resolving critical alcohol-induced liver disease(ALD) where ammonia is a major factor included.(so it’s not all bad I guess!)

Other pharmaceutical options used include ammonia scavengers that bind to free circulating NH3 produced by bacterial degradation.

Oxygen Supply & IV Thiamine

High flow supplement oxygen via masks delivering 100% O2 concentration could help alleviate breathing difficulties experienced who have been exposed whenever necessary for life support purposes otherwise requiring emergency intubations. However too much of anything can be dangerous leading to toxicity so proper handling always required!

Besides that high dose thiamine (vitamin B1) dosage administered through an intravenous drip remains one viable option available alongside proper nutritional interventions capable of restoring metabolic balance lost due to hypoxia(Deficiency syndrome stems from inadequate Thiamin storage caused by several factors including chronic malnutrition leading).


Ammonium Hydroxide(NH3) remain indispensable commercially especially used for agricultural operations/fertilization products/cleaning agents etc but they do come with inherent occupational risks few understand leading exposure above recommendable levels resulting in Ammonia Syndrome when neglected/ignored.

Inhaling this gas causes significant lung damage and bronchospasm – meaning spasming airways or contraction/tightening event apparently known! Who knew? Now you do!

Ensure safety protocols are followed up each time working/living around industrial/farming/aquatic environments setting safety limits made mandatory by Health & Safety regulations.

Now that we’ve learned more about ammonia sickness and its potential hazards, we hope you will stay safe and steer clear of this dangerous compound at any cost.

Remember to seek professional help if ever exposed and always take safety precautions when handling NH3! Life is too short!

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