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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.

Fragrances and Our World continued...

"Being forced to breathe in others' fragrance choices is a lot like being forced to breathe in secondhand smoke," Dalton tells WebMD. "It's a loss of control over your personal environment, and for some it can have serious personal health consequences."

And that is precisely the logic behind several recent legal actions aimed at cleaning up our personal air space.

  • In July 2007, a government worker from Detroit sued her employers under the Americans With Disabilities Act for what her lawsuit claims is "fragrance toxicity" in the workplace. Her claim: Exposures to fragrances also means increased exposure to chemical neurotoxins that adversely impact brain function. The suit is pending.
  • In the fall of 2007, a group of students from California State University, Stanislaus, became so concerned about these same chemical exposures they asked campus officials to institute a fragrance-free policy. Their request cited headaches, nausea, and inability to concentrate, all caused by overpowering fragrance use among some students and faculty. The students are waiting for the administration's decision.
  • Workers in the Portland, Ore., Bureau of Emergency Communications were recently banned from wearing fragrances under what has become one of the nation's first government workplace "fragrance-free" policies. Portland State University followed suit, and now similar programs are in place at Cecil College in Maryland.

Fragrance Allergies: Nailing Down the Culprits

It can be hard to imagine that what smells divine to one person can cause a myriad of miserable symptoms in another, but experts say that how our bodies respond to a particular fragrance lies in our individual physiologic makeup.

"There are definitely people who can smell things at lower levels than others, and it's totally due to the internal geometry of the nose, including the number of olfactory receptors, which can differ significantly. So some people may actually be getting a bigger dose of a fragrance," Dalton says.

Women, particularly during their reproductive years, she adds, have the ability to detect odors much more vividly than do men -- and they become more sensitive with repeated exposures.

For most people, fragrance allergy symptoms abate once the scent is out of range. But this isn't always the case. For some, repeated exposures cause an increase in symptoms that occur more often and last longer. According to the American Academy of Allergy and Immunology, a small but growing segment is affected by a little understood and even somewhat controversial condition known as multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS).

For people with MCS, Dalton says sensitivity to one fragrance or odor can snowball into a crippling multiple chemical sensitivity that leaves its victims defenseless in the face of an ever-widening number of chemical odors and fragrances.

To further complicate matters, doctors can't quite agree on what's behind any fragrance reaction, and whether it's even a true allergy or simply a response to an irritant.

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