Fragrance Sensitivity: Making Sense of Scents

Are Smells Making Your Asthma Worse?

Flowering, blooming trees in the springtime produce billions of pollen spores to bring misery to spring alleries and asthma sufferers
Flowering, blooming trees in the springtime produce billions of pollen spores to bring misery to spring alleries and asthma sufferers. Photo courtesy of Stock Xchange

If you sneeze, wheeze, or develop itchy watery eyes when exposed to perfume or a room deodorizer, your asthma may be impacted by fragrance sensitivity.

In fact, as many as 30% of people report irritation related to scented products and 20% report adverse health outcomes. When looking at asthma, possibly one-third of asthmatics develop problems such as asthma attack due to exposure to certain scents.

Air fresheners are known asthma triggers.

Why Might “Fragrances” Be Problematic

Fragrances are everywhere in our lives. There are certain smells that often bring back many wonderful memories for us. However, the term fragrance can also end up being a buzzword for a very complicated chemical construction.

Home air freshener fragrances often contain volatile organic compounds (VOC) including formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, limonene, esters and alcohols. Many of these substances could be a trigger for your asthma. One aspect that may make your asthma more difficult to control or discover a potential trigger is that the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates fragrance products, does not require manufacturers to disclose ingredients.

One study found more than 133 VOCs in 25 different compounds. Of these 24 of the VOCs were considered hazardous or toxic and only one was listed on the label.

Each product contained at least one VOC. Interestingly, 11 of the products were labeled as green and each contained at least 2 VOCs. While studies in mice exposed to VOCs have shown airflow limitations that make researchers concerned that fragrances might cause bronchoconstriction and decreases in FEV1, respiratory studies in humans have rarely been preformed related to fragrances.

What Is Fragrance Sensitivity

Fragrance sensitivity is the development of allergy like symptoms with exposure to a certain fragrance. It is not a true allergic reaction or an inflammatory response but more of an irritation.

What Are The Symptoms of Fragrance Sensitivity?

Different people will react in different ways, but fragrances can certainly lead to asthma symptoms such as :

Fragrances can also lead to symptoms such as:

  • Skin irritation
  • Eye irritation
  • Headache
  • Drowsiness
  • Nausea
  • Abnormal gait
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Palpitations
  • Chest pain

Is Fragrance Sensitivity An Allergen

In terms of your asthma, an allergen is something you are exposed to that causes your immune system to over react. It can lead to an elevated IgE level or irritate steps in the pathophysiology of asthma.

Fragrance sensitivity, rather, operates as an irritant. This means that the immune system is not provoked as it might be by other asthma triggers such as:

Patients that have more allergic problems with their asthma may be more likely to experience asthma problems due to fragrance sensitivity.

What Can I Do?

Antihistamines, nasal saline, or nasal steroids can help prevent or treat allergy symptoms caused by fragrance sensitivity. While I am commonly asked if there is a particular home or personal fragrance that will not lead to symptoms, avoidance is generally the best treatment.

Avoiding fragrances in the following products may help prevent symptoms:

  • Fabric softeners
  • Home deodorizers
  • Laundry detergent
  • Lotion and other skin care products
  • Perfume or cologne
  • Soaps

If you think fragrances are impacting your asthma consider some of the information in the article today and try to take steps to improve your asthma control.

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  1. American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Unplug Indoor Pollutants For A Breath Of Fresh Air. Accessed on April 8, 2015.

  2. Anne C. Steinemann, Ian C. MacGregor, Sydney M. Gordon, Lisa G. Gallagher, Amy L. Davis, Daniel S. Ribeiro, Lance A. Wallace. Fragranced consumer products: Chemicals emitted, ingredients unlisted. Environmental Impact Assessment Review Volume 31, Issue 3, April 2011, Pages 328–333.

  3. Anderson RC, Anderson JH. Acute toxic effects of fragrance products. Arch Environ Health. 1998 Mar-Apr;53(2):138–46. Accessed on April 8, 2015.

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