Why do I stink of ammonia?
August 28, 2017 9:14 PM   Subscribe

When I shower after a workout, I smell ammonia. What's behind this?

It happened occasionally when I was in my 20s, but now it happens consistently: right after my workout, I get into a cool or warm shower and after the water hits me for a few minutes, I'm overwhelmed by a pungent smell I'd compare to that of hair dye.

Other people online report this happening to them, but mention that it's more likely to happen with high-endurance athletes. I'm out of shape and typically do 20-25 minutes cardio at moderate intensity.

Is this normal? Is it maybe happening because I'm dehydrated or undernourished?
posted by theraflu to Health & Fitness (11 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Are you shampooing and using soap at the same time? Some shampoos when combined with soap give off an ammonia smell--I remember this happening to me when I was using Pert Plus or a similar generic shampoo+conditioner.
posted by epj at 9:23 PM on August 28, 2017

It may be a sign of a diet too high in protein and too low in carbs. You don't need to be a high endurance athlete for it to happen.

If it's dietary, you could try increasing the carbs you eat and decreasing the amount of protein (and making sure you're drinking enough water), but I think it's worth seeing a doctor about, to rule out anything serious like liver or kidney issues.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:44 PM on August 28, 2017 [4 favorites]

Data point: I have also experienced that (I though I was having a stroke or an acute neurological problem or something the first time) occasionally after running when I was trying out paleo or other low carb fad diets, although my typical diet tends to be fairly low in carbs as is. I drink a lot of alcohol. It's never ever happened after an endurance workout (rock or glacier climbs for me, or daylong bike rides), just daily ~5K runs with the dog. Yes, get your kidneys checked out: I'm 33 and have been hospitalized multiple times for kidney issues.
posted by halogen at 10:37 PM on August 28, 2017

Urine can react with residual shower cleanser that contains bleach and give off ammonia. Are you showering at a gym?
posted by waving at 7:31 AM on August 29, 2017

I experience this sometimes after running. I read that it means the body has run out of glucose to burn and has switched to protein metabolism.
posted by synecdoche at 7:46 AM on August 29, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's only after exercise, and I use my same old shampoo and body wash. This happens no matter where I shower -- at the gym or at my house. It does seem to happen more often the earlier in the day I exercise, especially before breakfast. I usually grab a banana or a handful of almonds as I head out the door but save meals until after I'm done exercising.

Lastly, it's not my pee or breath that smells like ammonia; it's just my body, in the shower, after water hits it. It makes me a little light-headed and I have to stick my head out of the shower to get fresh air.
posted by theraflu at 7:46 AM on August 29, 2017

Synecdoche has it.
posted by Spathe Cadet at 7:51 AM on August 29, 2017

Whoops. Also hurdy gurdy girl. (Sorry, hgg.)
posted by Spathe Cadet at 7:58 AM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

I can totally see dehydration being the reason for this. I'll experiment with more water and see if that doesn't make a difference. On the other hand, I love carbs. So much so that I eat them all day and then get fat from them. There's no way I'm accidentally doing low-carb without realizing it :)
posted by theraflu at 8:01 AM on August 29, 2017

If you're not low-carbing it, there's a chance this is diabetes. (Just a chance, but worth checking for, since you'd want to start treatment.)

The basic idea is, ketones arise when you're burning fat rather than glucose. That can happen because there's less glucose available (i.e. if you're low-carbing -- if so, ketones are expected and fine), or it can happen if you're unable to burn the glucose you have (i.e. if you've developed diabetes -- this kind of ketone production can be a problem).

Insulin is what lets your cells use blood glucose. If your body isn't making insulin (Type 1 diabetes), it can't burn the glucose it has, so the glucose builds up to dangerous levels while you're burning fat for fuel instead. Or if your body has become insulin-resistant (Type 2 diabetes), it still makes insulin but the cells can't use the insulin, so again you get glucose building up. Both types of diabetes can develop in adults. In both, but especially Type 1, excessive ketones are both a marker of the disease and on top of that, can lead to big problems.

You can get a box of ketone test strips at the drugstore in the diabetic products area, and test your urine right after exercise to see if you've got a lot of ketones. If this is the explanation, a doctor appointment is the next step.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:07 AM on August 29, 2017 [1 favorite]

It could also be a symptom of a sinus infection. Gross, but I have only had a few sinus infections in my lifetime and the first symptom both times was a smell to me that occasionally seemed like smelling salts / ammonia. At that point, both times, I was checked out by a doc who confirmed it and put me on a course of antibiotics. And running, lifting weights, exertion from working out (especially if I was ever inverted doing something like sit-ups on an incline bench) would usually exacerbate it probably by shaking things up / moving things around in there.
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 2:27 PM on August 29, 2017

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