Does Perfume Make You Sick?

Rest assured, you are not alone


Do you abhor potent fragrance?  Do you cringe when another person's cologne seems to enter a room before he does?  You are not alone.  Research suggests that for many people, sensory hyperreactivity secondary to fragrance is a distinct and significant medical issue.

Fragrances are aromatic compounds derived from animal, botanical or synthetic compounds.  About 1 to 4 percent of people are allergic to perfumes.

  Many perfumes share a common ingredient called  Myroxylon pereirae (MP) also known as balsam of Peru (BOP) which can trigger allergic reactions.

A common manifestation of perfume allergy involves the skin.  Specifically, perfume can trigger contact dermatitis, a red itchy rash which can become bloodied after scratching (excoriation).  This rash erupts anywhere that the fragrance is applied including face, hands, neck, and underarms.  Contact dermatitis can be treated with prescription creams, ointments and topical or, in severe cases, oral corticosteroids.      

In addition to contact dermatitis, in some people, perfumes, and other fragrances can result in respiratory and central nervous system symptoms including:

  • shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • cough
  • irritation of the eyes
  • dry throat
  • nasal congestion
  • headache
  • hoarseness

For some time, many experts thought that in some people the respiratory symptoms triggered by perfumes were actually manifestations of asthma.

  However, researchers have demonstrated that sensory hyperreactivity secondary to perfume exposure is distinct from asthma for several reasons.

First, unlike asthma, with sensory hyperreactivity certain spirometry or pulmonary function tests remain unchanged.  Second, whereas asthma is mediated by bronchospasm (narrowing of small airways), researchers have demonstrated that the asthma-like symptoms exhibited with sensory hyperreactivity may be mediated by the nervous system--specifically the trigeminal nerve.

  Of note, branches of the trigeminal nerve innervate your face.  In other words, whereas asthma begins as a respiratory process, sensory hyperreactivity may begin with the eyes.  Third, the asthma-like symptoms of sensory hyperreactivity fail to resolve after the administration of beta-agonists and inhaled corticosteroids, medications typically used to treat asthma.

Instead of asthma, researchers now postulate that sensory hyperreactivity may be more akin to sick-building syndrome and multiple chemical sensitivity.

If either you or someone you love is sickened by perfumes, colognes or other fragrances, it's a good idea to avoid such triggers.  Although there are no specific treatments available for sensory hyperreactivity, it's probably a good idea to discuss your symptoms with an allergist, too.  Most importantly, because symptoms of sensory hyperreactivity closely resemble asthma, it's important that your primary care physician avoid prescribing you asthma medications when they are of no use.

  Finally, if you work or live with someone who loves heavily scented perfumes and other products, please inform him that such fragrances make you sick.  Please feel free to stand up for your health.

For the rest of us who like to douse our face, clothes, and body in Axe Bodyspray and other pungent fragrances, it's probably a good idea to cut back.  Please keep in mind that your love of perfume might make another person sick.  So, instead of using half a bottle of perfume when going to school, work or the club, please consider moderation.

Selected Sources

Castanedo-Tardan M, Zug KA. Chapter 13. Allergic Contact Dermatitis. In: Goldsmith LA, Katz SI, Gilchrest BA, Paller AS, Leffell DJ, Wolff K. eds. Fitzpatrick's Dermatology in General Medicine, 8e. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2012. Accessed February 16, 2015.

Article titled "Provocations with perfume in the eyes induce airway symptoms in patients with sensory hyperreactivity" by E. Millqvist and co-authors published in Allergy (1999).

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