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The Nose Knows - Allergies to Scents
Written By : Mark Rosenberg, MD 
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Have you ever stepped into a crowded elevator, inhaled a whiff of fragrance and suddenly found yourself struggling to breathe? If this has happened to you, you are probably sensitive to scents and chemicals. Since these triggers are all around us, it is difficult to avoid unpleasant reactions. It is estimated that between 15 and 30 percent of Americans are allergic to certain everyday chemicals. Among asthma sufferers, 72% report that perfumes and colognes trigger attacks. Find out where these hidden allergens lurk and how to protect yourself.

How Can I Be Allergic to Scents?

Allergies to scents occur because fragrances are made of many different chemicals. Perfumes, for example, are complex mixtures of animal and vegetable products and natural and inorganic compounds. Unfortunately perfume and cologne are not the only problem for people with chemical allergies. Scents are found in a multitude of everyday products. Items like lotion, soap, laundry detergent, makeup, cleaning products and candles often contain artificial scents.

When you inhale scents from any of the items above, chemicals reach receptors in the nose, eyes, mouth, face and airways. The body absorbs fragrances through the air, but contact between the skin and a scented item can also causes allergic reactions. In fact, after nickel, fragrances are the most common contact allergens.

Allergies to scented products are often problematic because it is nearly impossible to identify to specific ingredient that caused the reaction. Sometimes, people react adversely to products, such as a detergent even after they've used it for years. It is thought that one instance of exposure to a large amount of irritant (spilling it on your hands, for example) can cause you to be more sensitive when exposed to small amounts.

The problem of allergic reactions to scents has increased in recent years. This is most likely due to the rise in scented products on the market and more frequent use by the average person. In the past, perfume or cologne might be worn on a special occasion. Now, people often apply perfume on a daily basis, in addition to items like body lotion and hairspray. Asthma rates have increased steadily since the 1970s, probably due in large part to the increased manufacture and use of scented products.

How to Cope with Chemical Allergies

When it comes to scent allergies, avoiding triggers is not always easy. Public places like malls, restaurants and libraries are packed with people who may be wearing scented items. If you suffer from severe asthma attacks or allergic reactions, see your doctor or allergist for the best treatment to suit your needs. If you work in an office, it is likely that managers and human resource personnel will be receptive to your health needs. Many offices and schools have policies discouraging the use of perfumes and strong fragrances.

Since it can be difficult to determine specific trigger chemicals, buy natural cleaners, soaps and cosmetics labeled "fragrance free." Even products labeled "unscented" may contain fragrances intended to mask an unappealing odor. Often your dermatologist or doctor can recommend specific brands that are safe for allergy and asthma sufferers. If you have a skin reaction to a chemical, keep the area clean and dry and treat it with corticosteroid cream, or see your doctor.

Since fragrances are airborne, they can circulate through vents and air conditioning systems. Make sure your home or office is equipped with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter that is replaced regularly. These highly effective filters were designed for medical and industrial use, but are now widely used to remove allergens from the air in homes as well.

Protecting yourself from chemical allergies can be daunting in today's world. Although it seems like potential triggers are everywhere, it is possible to minimize your risk. Understanding your individual symptoms and triggers, and discussing treatments with your doctor will prepare you for any future allergic reactions. Reading product labels and sharing your concerns with friends and co-workers will help you live healthy day by day.

Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
Institute For Healthy Aging

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