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Fragrance Allergies: A Sensory Assault

The use of fragrance in products is on the rise -- and so is the number of people affected by them. WebMD offers ways to protect yourself if you're sensitive to scents.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Do any of these scenarios sound familiar?

  • You catch a whiff of a co-worker's new fragrance, and within minutes, you have a whopper of a headache.
  • You pop open that new bottle of dish-washing liquid, and by the time you've washed the pots and pans, your hands and arms are covered in hives.
  • You walk into a friend's home and smell freshly baked pumpkin pie. Only after you start sneezing uncontrollably and feeling dizzy, weak, and sick to your stomach do you learn she hasn't been baking -- she's been burning a scented candle.
  • Your favorite fashion magazine arrives, and as soon as it's out of the mailbox your eyes are watering and you're sneezing nonstop. The culprit: scented fragrance advertising inserts.

If this sounds like you, you may be one of a growing number of people with fragrance allergies or sensitivities that can have mild to severe health consequences.

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"Scent sells. So not only are there definitely more fragranced products in the world, the fragrances themselves are also more complex. And for many people, repeated exposures can bring about a constellation of symptoms," says Tracie DeFreitas Saab, MS, a human factors consultant with the Job Accommodation Network at West Virginia University. DeFreitas frequently works with employers and employees on work environmental issues.

Those symptoms, she tells WebMD, can range from classic "allergic" reactions, such as sneezing, runny nose, and watery eyes; to headaches, inability to concentrate, and dizziness; to respiratory issues, such as breathing difficulties and wheezing; to skin reactions, such as itching, hives, and other rashes.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), fragrances are considered the leading cause of cosmetic contact dermatitis. As a health problem, this sensitivity alone affects more than 2 million people, and studies suggest that sensitivity is on the rise.

(What do you do when faced with fragrance sensitivity or allergy? Talk with others on the Health Cafe board.)

Fragrances and Our World

Experts theorize that one reason fragrance allergies appear to be increasing is that fragrances themselves have become such a prominent part of our world. According to the AAD, some 5,000 different fragrances -- and countless other fragrance combinations -- are used in products today. And they can be a powerful, toxic brew.

"From hair shampoos to carpet shampoos, from laundry detergent to shower gels, from home sprays to hair sprays to moisturizers, cosmetic, and personal care items, the scent industry has literally exploded. And for many people, it's a real sensory overload," says Pamela Dalton, PhD, MPH, an olfactory researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

We do have some control over what we allow into our homes and other personal spaces -- we can toss that magazine with the inserts or switch shampoo -- but it can really become an issue when our senses are assaulted in common areas, such as the workplace or a college classroom, places where we have to be.

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