What Is Fragrance Sensitivity?

In This Article

Fragrance sensitivity is when your airways are irritated by chemicals in manufactured and/or natural scents. You may experience respiratory symptoms like sneezing, wheezing, or itchy watery eyes around certain or many scents, such as those of perfumes, air fresheners, and so on. Fragrance sensitivity can happen to anyone, but is more likely if you have asthma or allergies.

Fragrance Sensitivity Symptoms

The effects of a fragrance sensitivity generally develop within minutes of exposure to certain odors, but they can begin up to a few days after exposure. You can expect the effects to last for a few minutes or up to several hours.

The triggering scent(s) can differ from person to person. But typically, the longer and more intense the exposure, the more severe and long-lasting a reaction will be.

Fragrance sensitivity can cause symptoms such as:

  • A ticklish feeling of your nose
  • A raw or burning sensation in the nasal passages
  • Watery and/or red eyes
  • A dry cough
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Congestion
  • Wheezing

You might experience some of these issues when you have a fragrance sensitivity, but it's unlikely that you would experience all of them.

Associated Symptoms

Sometimes fragrance sensitivity can be associated with other symptoms as well. This is not common, and generally only occurs if you've had prolonged breathing exposure and/or another type of contact (such as with the skin).

You might experience:

Associated symptoms can range from mild to severe, and if you experience the latter, be sure to get medical attention right away. In particular, seek help if you have:

Severe symptoms can be harmful and dangerous, and they might signal a severe allergic reaction rather than a fragrance sensitivity.

Causes

Fragrance sensitivity occurs due to a trigger irritating the respiratory system. This irritation actually causes slight damage to the affected tissue.

Some people are especially susceptible to fragrance sensitivity. It can be triggered by a wide variety of both organic and artificial chemicals in a variety of scents that find their way into the air you breathe. Symptoms alone may be enough to alert you to such an exposure even if you can't smell it (perhaps because it's masked by other scents around you).

The most common substances that induce fragrance sensitivity include α-pinene (APN), limonene (LIM), linalool (LIL), and eugenol (EUG). These chemicals irritate the eyes and nasal passages, but some of their effects are not well understood.

Items often involved in fragrance sensitivity reactions include:

  • Perfumes and colognes
  • Lotions
  • Soaps
  • Powders
  • Air fresheners
  • Cigarettes
  • Flowers
  • Detergents or fabric softeners
  • Cleaning products

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

While fragrance sensitivity is characterized by allergy- and asthma-like symptoms, it is neither of these conditions. Though fragrance sensitivity is not uncommon among people who have allergic conditions, it does not involve a true allergic reaction. The irritation that occurs with fragrance sensitivity can trigger an allergic response or an asthma attack, but experts aren't sure why this happens.

Diagnosis

Generally, a diagnosis of fragrance sensitivity is based on an observation of recurrent cause and effect. You, rather than your doctor, are in the best position to notice your reaction and to get a sense of the triggers.

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

As you're trying to figure out the cause of your fragrance sensitivity, it's a good idea to read labels of products at home that cause your symptoms. It may help to ask people who are using an offending fragrance to tell you the name of the product they use.

Medical Evaluation

Beyond doing your own research to find out which fragrances in your environment induce your reaction, you might also benefit from a medical evaluation. Your doctor might consider checking whether you have asthma or allergies.

Depending on your symptoms, pulmonary function tests (PFTs) and/or blood tests can help in assessing your lung function and signs of inflammation.

You might also have an allergy test. While skin tests are the most common types of allergy tests, the results could be helpful if you are having a hard time getting answers.

Treatment and Prevention

Avoiding the fragrances that induce a reaction for you is generally the best way to manage fragrance sensitivity.

This is relatively easy to do at home (e.g., buy unscented soaps, decorate with fake flowers instead of real ones), but isn't always possible elsewhere. For example, perhaps you are sensitive to the smell of the rug shampoo used at your doctor's office.

Remember, too, that you may develop symptoms related to exposure before you even realize it has occurred.

Do what you can to influence your level of exposure to triggers, and consider using medications to ease symptoms when they strike despite your best efforts.

Speak Up

When a troublesome fragrance comes from someone else's use of certain products, it may be worth discussing it with them—particularly if you are often in close contact. For example, maybe an officemate uses a strongly scented lotion that prompts you to cough or sneeze.

This can be tricky and requires diplomacy, as some people could take offense, or even feel that you are criticizing their choices or hygiene.

A good strategy can be communicating your problem as specifically as possible. For example, you can explain that the scent of a particular brand of lotion makes your eyes water about half an hour after exposure. This presents the fragrance sensitivity accurately as a medical issue rather than a personal one.

Medications

In cases where you can't avoid exposure or when symptoms are persistent, you can use symptomatic treatments like over-the-counter medications for issues like headaches or congestion.

While it's likely that your symptoms will be short-lived, you know your own usual response. If the effects of your fragrance sensitivity tend to last a while, it's not a bad idea to keep some treatments on hand with you just in case.

When your fragrance sensitivity triggers your asthma or allergies to act up, you may need to take your usual allergy or asthma treatment to alleviate these effects.

A Word From Verywell

Fragrance sensitivity is not uncommon. You might notice that you get eye or nose irritation when exposed to certain scents. It can be especially bothersome if you are repeatedly exposed to the irritant. And since the best treatment is prevention—learning how to communicate with others about your sensitivity is a skill you will need to perfect so you can avoid the bothersome effects.

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