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Fragrances and Asthma

I sat, indulging in some fresh coffee at a local roaster; the smell of chocolate, and freshly roasted coffee cooling in the ocean breeze. As I worked away on my laptop, there was not the slightest hum or constriction in my lungs. Then came the strangling scent of a cloud of perfume, that permeated off a group just walked through the door. I sat a dozen feet away but the obtrusive scent was determined to reach anyone it could. My lungs instantly began to seize a bit, but luckily I was wrapping up anyway, so I left.

As I walked down the road, I began thinking about why one strong perfume can be so agitating to my lungs, while the omnipresent aroma of coffee does nothing but offer a comforting hug to my bronchi. Why does the smell of the ocean ease my breath but the scent of some body sprays agitates my asthma aggressively? This is what I found out the next time I was on my laptop.

The two families of fragrance

There are two families of fragrance; those that occur organically or naturally and those that are created artificially. I have noticed that the strong scents that trigger my asthma are consistently from the artificial family. For example, the scent of freshly roasted coffee and the ocean air have no effect on my breathing. Whereas the fragrance of that perfume cloud was instantaneous irritation. It turns out that I am not alone in this realization.

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Many people experience being triggered by artificial fragrances. The fragrances that choke me up, and choke up most other asthmatics are heavily processed and have many additives. These are the aerosol body sprays delivered from pressurized cans and the perfumes. Perfumes are triggering because they are commonly made with chemicals derived from coal tar and petrol, to help them stick to the object they are sprayed on.

The fragrances that have little effect on my lungs have a little process in making them. For example, rose water has never once triggered my asthma, but it is made with just water, rose essential oils and sometimes the addition of a mint aroma. Rosewater is also delivered as a spray from a pump-bottle, rather than a pressurized aerosol can.

The fragrances I avoid and why

Some fragrances that I avoid:

  • Body sprays

    They are delivered with aerosol which is already a common trigger and the scents are often artificially created aromatic chemicals.

  • Perfume and cologne

    While they are commonly made with the essential oils of natural scents, they use other agents to empower the fragrance and help it bond to what it is sprayed on. Common agents used are petrochemicals, alcohols, coal, and coal tar; nothing you want on your body.

  • Bathroom sprays and air fresheners

    These contain many of the same additives and, ironically, make the air less safe to breathe.

A simple solution to fragrance-induced asthma

Avoidance of harmful fragrances is simple, literally. The organically occurring scents that are not triggering are very simple concoctions, like rose water. If you are looking for something that will smell nice but more importantly feel nice, shop for simplicity. Take the time to look at what’s in the fragrance. If you can’t read the ingredients in 10 seconds or less, chances are there’s more than you want in it. That means more chances of something that doesn’t agree with your lungs. Simple products exist in every category: perfume, sprays, deodorant, air fresheners, shampoos, soaps, and even toothpaste.

As for the external sources of triggering fragrances, like the group that came into the coffee shop, that's tough. Unfortunately, there’s little you can do to control the fragrance-soaked people of the world or the public restrooms with an automatic spray mounted on the wall. So that is why we carry our rescue inhalers and look for comfortable spaces.

I wish you the best with making your living spaces more comfortable and hope this article helps you to identify triggering fragrances.

Do you have fragrance-induced asthma? Share your experience with the community.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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