In recent years the number of consumer products containing fragrances has skyrocketed. Thousands of fragrances have invaded our air space and become a part of our daily routine. But some people with respiratory problems might say that their homes and work places have turned into virtual gas chambers.
Fragrances are not limited to perfumes and colognes. Where else can they be found?
- Hair spray, bar soap, body and facial lotion, shampoo, cosmetics, deodorant and aftershave often contain fragrance.
- Clothing and linen are frequently washed in fragrances that have been added to soap powder or liquid.
- Fabric softener and dryer sheets (that reduce static cling) may contain fragrance. The makers of some brands of chlorine bleach have recently added fragrance.
- Floor soaps, wood cleansers, carpet cleaners, window cleaners, tile cleaners, dish washing liquids, bathroom cleaners and aerosols for dusting often contain fragrance.
- Air fresheners, aerosols, potpourri, scented candles and incense.
At work, there are plenty of places to encounter fragrances too.
Work place exposure to fragrance is very frustrating for millions of rhinitis and asthma patients. Some businesses have established fragrance free policies. This is not enough for jobs that serve the public or have clients who wear fragrance. Fragrances may trigger symptoms that mimic allergy, including runny nose, nasal congestion, sneezing, post-nasal drip, cough, headache and watery burning or itchy eyes.
Asthma control may worsen after inhaling certain fragrances, leading to more cough, wheezing, and shortness of breath. The most common skin reaction to fragrance is a rash caused by direct contact (contact dermatitis). Severe reactions to fragrance can be life-threatening and may encompass all of the above symptoms.
Fragrances Rarely Cause Allergic Reactions
While people often assume they are allergic to fragrance, they are usually mistaken. Allergic reactions are typically triggered by organic substances - pollen, food, mold spores, dust mites, animal and cockroach dander, feathers -- capable of inducing white blood cells to make IgE antibody. That is what makes them allergic trigger factors.
Fragrances, in contrast, usually are synthetic chemicals that, generally, do not stimulate IgE antibody production. Thus, they are not allergens, but irritants.
Irritants (which also include smoke, odors, fumes and other chemicals) irritate the inner surface of the nose, eyes, throat, or lung. They will not cause anaphylaxis. There are no allergy skin prick tests available for fragrances.
There are exceptions. There are a few chemicals involved with plastics and paints that may cause allergic sensitivity (TDI and TMA, specifically). Contact dermatitis (often erroneously called "contact allergy") is a delayed immune reaction that DOES NOT involve IgE.
Confused? No need to be, just remember that nasal or chest symptoms caused by smelling a fragrance, fume or odor are not an allergic reaction.
What Can You Do?
Since this isn't an allergic reaction, but you're just as irritated, the key is to avoid those substances that cause the irritation. But complete elimination of fragrance from our surroundings is not possible. Some experts report that people sensitive to fragrance suffer from the cumulative effect of multiple irritant triggers. This means reduction in exposure to these triggers may have considerable benefit.
Here are five ways to reduce your level of exposure to fragrances at home:
1. Immediately reduce or eliminate all personal hygiene products that contain fragrance or fumes. This will be a challenge because most soaps, antiperspirants, and lotions have fragrance, but fragrance-free products have become easier to find over the past decade because of the increased demand.
2. Replace all laundry detergents, softeners and anti-static sheets with fragrance-free products.
3. Avoid using any household cleaning products that have fragrance added. Fumes associated with some cleaning solutions are unavoidable. Ventilate areas that have been recently cleaned by briefly opening the windows (if weather permits). Try to use smaller than recommended amounts of the cleaning agents.
4. Do not use aerosol deodorizers or other types of fragrances in your home. An open box of baking soda absorbs unwanted odors very well.
5. HEPA based air cleaners that contain charcoal filters effectively reduce fragrances and odors.
Work related exposure is often more difficult to address. Here are four ways to reduce your level of exposure to fragrances at work:
1. Ask coworkers to limit their use of perfumes and colognes. Explain how exposure to fragrances affects your health. Provide them with literature or other sources of information.
2. If permissible move your desk away from a high traffic area.
3. Consider getting an air cleaner if you work in an isolated room.
4. Attempt to get janitorial or housekeeping service to use fragrance-free cleaning products. This may require input from your boss or supervisor.
Talk to your allergist about medications that may be helpful. I often recommend nasal saline rinses in addition to medication.
Have you ever found yourself gasping for air after a whiff of someone's cologne?
What did you do?