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Allergies Health Center

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.
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Fragrance Allergies: Nailing Down the Culprits continued...

"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.

"Sensitivity is a general term under which you can have a true allergic reaction, but you can also have irritant reactions, meaning the problem with fragrance could be that it's an irritant. With others, it could be an allergic reaction. It's just not well known what actually is occurring when these reactions develop," says dermatologist Marjorie Slankard, MD, clinical professor of medicine at Columbia Eastside, a division of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York City.

Some experts aren't even sure if it's the fragrance itself that is the real culprit, or just one part of a mix of chemicals -- as many as 200 or more -- that are used to create both fragrances we smell and the masking agents used in unscented products.

"Because the 'fragrance' is what we smell when we have an onset of symptoms, we blame the fragrance. But, in fact, it's possible that the reaction we are getting may instead be the result of the many chemicals used in the formulation of the fragrance," Dalton tells WebMD. This, she says, includes both products we can smell and those labeled as "unscented," which frequently rely on a whole host of chemicals to dampen the scent.

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