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Asthma Health Center

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Thinking an Odor Is Harmful Spurs Asthma Symptoms?

Study finds people's negative expectations can play a role in flare-ups

WebMD News from HealthDay

By Mary Elizabeth Dallas

HealthDay Reporter

WEDNESDAY, July 30, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- For patients with asthma, just believing an odor is potentially harmful is enough to trigger airway inflammation for at least 24 hours, a new study indicates.

"It's not just what you smell, but also what you think you smell," study author Cristina Jaen, a physiologist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, said in a Monell news release.

"Asthmatics often are anxious about scents and fragrances. When we expect that an odor is harmful, our bodies react as if that odor is indeed harmful," Jaen explained. "Both patients and care providers need to understand how expectations about odors can influence symptoms of the disease."

More than 25 million Americans have asthma -- a chronic inflammatory disorder that affects the airways and can interfere with quality of life. For people with asthma, certain "triggers" can inflame and constrict the airway, making it hard to breathe. There is no cure for asthma. People with the condition must identify and avoid their triggers, and learn how to manage their symptoms.

There are many types of asthma triggers, including pollen, dust, chemicals and allergens. The researchers pointed out that stress, emotions and fragrances can also aggravate asthma symptoms.

To determine how negative expectations affected odor-triggered asthma symptoms, the researchers exposed 17 people with moderate asthma to phenylethyl alcohol for 15 minutes.

Phenylethyl alcohol is commonly described as rose-scented and isn't considered a lung irritant. Nine of the participants were told that it might cause mild respiratory problems. The remaining eight patients were told the odor could be therapeutic.

While being exposed to the odor, the participants were asked to rate its properties, including its intensity, irritancy and annoyance.

Right before and right after exposure, the participants' lung function and airway inflammation were assessed. They were measured again two hours and 24 hours later.

What the patients believed about the odor they smelled not only influenced their psychological response to it, but also their physiological response, according to the study, published online recently in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research.

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