A whiff here, a hint there - we are surrounded by different smells. These experiences are not detrimental; however, in a group of people, specific smells can lead to ill health effects from scents. Though the exact numbers are unknown, a survey done at University of West Georgia indicated that close to 30 percent of the general population found scented products on others irritating and 19 percent reported adverse health effects from air fresheners. The cause of symptoms is usually not a true allergy but a chemical sensitivity and irritation of upper air passages by the volatile chemicals. One study found that perfumes lead to release of histamine (the same substance allergy sufferers take anti-histamines to counteract) in the lining of the nose and air passages leading to allergy-type inflammation.

Common symptoms of sensitivity to fragrances are:

  • Headaches
  • Sinus pressure
  • Sinus pain
  • Runny nose
  • Burning of eyes
  • Wheezing or asthma attack
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dry mouth and tongue
  • Itching of skin and/or face
  • Feeling groggy and dull
While it is not clear exactly how sensitivity to strong fragrances translates to specific symptoms, the cause of sinus and nose symptoms including headaches is thought to be due to local irritation and inflammation secondary to scent exposure. For asthma, one possible mechanism of triggering an attack is irritation of nerves in the airways by volatile solvents in scented products. According to OSHA, individuals with underlying lung disease, such as asthma, are more susceptible than others to exposure to these indoor air contaminants. While some institutions have a ‘fragrance-free’ policy, general awareness of this condition will prevent work place incidents.
Things you can do to reduce perfume sensitivity at work - 
  • Be considerate of fellow employees and their health.
  • Find out if there are existing ‘scent-free’ policies at your work place.
  • For the sufferers, be vocal about your sensitivity to strong scents – sometimes a polite reminder is all that is required.
  • Remove the offending fragrances like air fresheners or air scents, if possible.
  • Make sure the work place is well ventilated.
Wearing perfumes, colognes or scents is a matter of personal choice. Unless there is a policy preventing use of these agents, it is difficult to remedy this issue completely. Increasing knowledge and creating awareness about scent intolerance is an excellent way to improve this work place concern.

This article provided by Rohit Divekar, MD, PhD, a Clinical Fellow in the Dept. of Internal Medicine/
Division of Allergy and Immunology.