How to Keep Strong Smells from Triggering Your Asthma

by John Bottrell Health Professional

Do strong smells bother your asthma?
If so you are not alone, and you are not weird, and it's not all in your head. In fact, a study from the University of West Georgia found that as many as 30 percent of Americans have a sensitivity to strong smells.

By strong smells I'm referring to the following:

  • Perfumes

  • Deodorant

  • Nail polish

  • Paint fumes

  • Cologne

  • After shave

  • Air fresheners

  • etc.

Strong smells are not visible, and they are not -- like dust mites, cockroach urine, and molds -- allergens.
They are not chemicals or substances.
They are simply smells that are proven by various studies to trigger the asthma and allergy response, or cause headaches.

The exact mechanism is not known.
It's also not possible to do a scientific study because it's not like you can take a smell, put it into a syringe, and insert it under your skin to see if it causes a response.
You can do that with allergens, but not smells.

The University of West Georgia study, as Stanley M. Caress and Ann C. Steinemann wrote in a report from the March, 2009 (Volume 71 number 7) issue of Journal of Environmental Health, just over 2,000 people were surveyed of which about 30 percent reported a sensitivity to strong smells.

More specifically, 19 percent reported an adverse effect to air fresheners, 10 percent reported an adverse effect to laundry products.

Strong smells have been listed as a major asthma trigger for many years.
Caress and Steinemann note a study done in 2006 linking strong smells with reduced lung function, and a study from 1995 linking strong smells with chest tightness and wheezing, and study from 2004 linking strong smells with mucosal irritation.

In fact, I had strong smells on my personal list
of asthma triggers going way back to 1985.
My doctor long ago warned me about wearing perfumes and strong scented deodorants, and back when I had hardluck asthma I was better off avoiding the laundry section in grocery stores.

I was always lucky in that most people I associated myself with didn't wear strong scented perfumes and stuff, yet from time to time I'd come across someone who did at school and it would more often than not result in an asthma attack.
Yet it's not like you can just walk up to a stranger and say, "hey, will you wash that cologne off your body?"

Recently I received an email from a reader of my RT Cave blog, and she wrote, "During the summer I live with my 3 sisters.
All of them are obsessed with nail polish and apply it every day.
Whenever I smell the polish my lungs clamp up and give me a hard time.
I have given up telling them that as they complain, ignore me, and say it's in my head.
Is it in my head?"

I responded by reassuring her it's not all in her head.
I also assured her I had a similar problem, and so do many of my asthmatic friends.
Our lungs are simply sensitive even to something as simple as a strong smell.
And it's best if we avoid such strong smells, yet trying to get others to understand this is a major conundrum.

So what can you do? You can:

Have a rule:
Where I work we have a rule: no strong smelling perfumes or colognes.
Of course it helps I work in a hospital with asthmatics and other chronic lungers.
You can create such a rule at your home, yet good luck getting your mom who has been wearing strong perfume for the past 50 years to follow your rule.

Explain your plight:
A good friend might empathize with you, or maybe even a fellow asthmatic.
Yet it's hard to understand what you cannot see or feel.
Another problem here is when you leave your home there are way too many people who wear smelly perfumes and such, and it's not possible to approach them all.

So again, this is often a dead end road.

Educate: You can print off study's like the one I linked to above.
Another good article is
this one.
Unless your friend is dogmatic, you'd think he'd comply with the evidence.
I tried this once with my grandma and she complied for a month or so when I was around, then she forgot.

Do your best:
This might be the most do-able, because while you can't control what others do, you have complete control over yourself.
Do your best to avoid the smells that trigger your asthma, and do your best to avoid being around people who wear strong smelling stuff.
Likewise, avoid the laundry section of stores if possible.

Oh, and you also must
do your best to be a Gallant Asthmatic.

Easier said than done, hey?
So what's your experience with strong smells.

John Bottrell
Meet Our Writer
John Bottrell

John Bottrell is a registered Respiratory Therapist. He wrote for HealthCentral as a health professional for Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).