Don’t let scent sensitivity lead you by the nose

  • Tue Jan 10th, 2012 7:17pm

<b>YOUR HEALTH | </b>By Katie Murdoch Herald writer

For some, sensitivity to scents isn’t something to turn up one’s nose at — it could signal an underlying health problem.

Feeling physically ill after taking a whiff of perfume could signal an allergy, asthma or another medical problem that warrants seeing a physician.

However, be wary of confusing reaction to the aroma of cleaning products or colognes with an allergy.

Scents and fumes are considered irritants and shouldn’t be confused with allergens, advised Dr. David Naimi of the Northwest Asthma and Allergy Center.

“No one is truly allergic to fumes or scents,” Naimi said.

That said, scents and fumes can have a significant effect on a person’s quality of life. This could include causing such symptoms as cough, nasal congestion and watery eyes and nose. If these symptoms occur, it would warrant getting checked out by a doctor to rule out asthma or a vocal cord dysfunction, for example, as those conditions can be exacerbated by scents and perfume, Naimi said. A simpler remedy would be using nonhabit-forming nasal sprays.

“Even what would be thought of as a ‘mild runny nose’ on a daily basis can actually have an important impact on vital parts of our lives such as sleep, energy level, work productivity and school performance,” he wrote in an email.

One remedy for scent sensitivity is common sense.

If aromas irritate you, don’t light incense or scented candles and get up and move away from someone with an offensive perfume, advises allergist Dr. Marlene Peng of Seattle’s Minor and James Medical facility, a health partner of Swedish/Edmonds.

Unlike a disorder or disease, scent sensitivity is more of an irritant response and doesn’t require a test before diagnosis or treatment.

“It’s purely odor sensitivity,” she said.

Some patients have felt they needed to wear a mask to avoid irritation, but Peng said the degree really depends on how far the person wants to take it.

“Strong odors can bother anyone,” she said. “Some say they can smell an odor someone wore five days ago. That could be true but it’s not the norm.”

However, someone with an underlying issue such as asthma is more reactive to obnoxious odors like bleach or car exhaust. And scented soap or lotion could aggravate skin of those with eczema.

When a person’s asthma is under control, they’ll be less irritated by scents. With eczema, a patch test rules out allergies: Fragrances or chemicals are applied to stickers and stick to the skin. There could be a problem if there is a rash after the patch is pulled off.

Peng tells patients with sensitive or hyperactive noses that the main thing is to avoid those with an irritating aroma.

“The only thing you can do is move or ask them not to wear it,” she said.

For some patients, treatment is an option to remedy an underlying health problem.

When symptoms involve cough, shortness of breath and chest tightness a physician could rule out asthma or bronchial hyper responsiveness as an underlying cause and prescribe appropriate treatment.

Pre-existing allergies mean sensitivity to scents could be worse.

“If their respiratory tract is already inflamed, it is possible that they will subsequently also be even more sensitive to scents, fumes, or irritants in the environment,” Naimi wrote.