What Is Fragrance Sensitivity?

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Fragrance sensitivity is when your airways are irritated by ingredients or chemicals in natural or manufactured scents. While the term is sometimes used synonymously with a fragrance allergy, a fragrance sensitivity doesn't involve a whole-body immune response. Instead, it suggests that some component of the fragrance is irritating to your airways and eyes.

With a fragrance sensitivity, symptoms like sneezing, coughing, or itchy eyes develop in response to scents like perfumes, flowers, incense, and cigarette smoke. Fragrance sensitivity can happen to anyone but is more likely if you have asthma or allergies.

This article discusses the symptoms, causes, and diagnosis of fragrance sensitivities. It also discusses how they can be treated and prevented.

Potential Triggers of Fragrance Sensitivity

Theresa Chiechi / Verywell

Fragrance Sensitivity Symptoms

The symptoms of fragrance sensitivity generally develop within minutes of exposure to a scent. You can expect the symptoms to last from a few minutes to several hours.

The triggering scents can differ from person to person along with the severity of symptoms. Symptoms tend to be worse the longer the exposure or the stronger the scent.

Fragrance sensitivity can cause symptoms such as:

  • A ticklish feeling in your nose
  • A raw or burning sensation in the nasal passages
  • Watery, itchy, or red eyes
  • A dry cough
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Nasal congestion

Associated Symptoms

Fragrance sensitivity can cause other symptoms as well. This generally only occurs if you've had prolonged breathing exposure or have come into contact with a substance like a perfume.

In the former case, the extended inhalation of a scent might lead to nausea and dizziness. In the latter case, direct skin exposure might lead to contact irritant dermatitis, manifesting with skin redness, irritation, and a prickly rash.

When to Seek Medical Care

Seek immediate medical attention if you experience the following after inhaling any scent or chemical:


Fragrance sensitivity occurs due to irritation of the respiratory tract or mucous membranes of the eyes. It can be triggered by a wide variety of organic and artificial chemicals in a variety of scents. Symptoms alone may be enough to alert you to the exposure even if you can't smell the scent.

The most common substances that induce fragrance sensitivity include α-pinene (APN), limonene (LIM), linalool (LIL), and eugenol (EUG).

Some of the common culprits of fragrance sensitivity include:

  • Perfumes and colognes
  • Body lotions
  • Soaps
  • Powders
  • Air fresheners
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Flowers
  • Detergents or fabric softeners
  • Cleaning products

It is also believed that there may be a psychological component to the response.

Fragrance Sensitivity vs. Allergy

Although fragrance sensitivity is not uncommon in people with allergies, it is not a true allergy. A true allergy involves an immune response in which a protein called immunoglobulin E (IgE) sets off a chain reaction that leads to allergy symptoms. With fragrance sensitivity, IgE is not involved.

The irritation that occurs with fragrance sensitivity can also trigger an allergic response or an asthma attack in some people, although experts aren't clear why this is.


Generally, a diagnosis of fragrance sensitivity is based on the occurrence and timing of symptoms. You, rather than your healthcare provider, are in the best position to notice reactions and get a clearer sense of your individual triggers.

But identifying the offending fragrance can be tricky. You might start to recognize that a certain fragrance or smell precedes your reactions, but you might not know which component of a product is causing your symptoms.

To aid you in your quest, it is a good idea to always read the ingredient label of any potentially offending product. Patterns may emerge that eventually lead you to the culprit.

You can also keep a diary detailing when you had symptoms, where you were at the time, and what you smelled prior to the outbreak of symptoms.

Medical Evaluation

Beyond doing your own research, you may also benefit from a medical evaluation. Your healthcare provider might begin by checking whether you have asthma or allergies if only to rule them out as the cause.

This may involve pulmonary function tests (PFTs) to evaluate the strength of your lungs or allergy tests to check for IgE antibodies or your response to common allergens like pollen and dust.

Treatment and Prevention

Avoiding offending fragrances is generally the best way to manage fragrance sensitivity. This is relatively easy to do at home by buying unscented soaps and lotion, decorating with fake flowers instead of real ones, or banning cigarettes indoors.

It may not be so easy at your workplace or when you are out at a friend's house. In such cases, it is in your interest to speak up and politely tell your friends, family members, and work colleagues about your sensitivities. They may not be aware that perfumes or fragrances they are accustomed to are overly strong and affecting others.


In cases where you can't avoid exposure (or when symptoms are persistent), you can use over-the-counter medications to treat the symptoms. This includes pain relievers like Tylenol (acetaminophen) or a nasal decongestant to overcome congestion.

When a fragrance sensitivity causes your asthma or allergy symptoms to flare up, you would also need to take your usual asthma or allergy medications to bring those symptoms under control.

A Word From Verywell

Fragrance sensitivity is not uncommon and can be especially aggravating if you are repeatedly exposed to the irritant in the workplace or at a friend's house.

The best treatment is prevention. Let others know about your concerns to help prevent any suspected fragrance sensitivities.

5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Basketter DA, Huggard J, Kimber I. Fragrance inhalation and adverse health effects: the question of causation. Regul Toxicol Pharmacol. 2019;104:151-6.doi:10.1016/j.yrtph.2019.03.011

  3. Wolkoff P, Nielsen GD. Effects by inhalation of abundant fragrances in indoor air - an overview. Environ Int. 2017;101:96-107. doi:10.1016/j.envint.2017.01.013

  4. American College of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology. Contact dermatitis.

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By Pat Bass, MD
Dr. Bass is a board-certified internist, pediatrician, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Physicians.