Don’t let holiday scents spoil your cheer

Peppermint potpourri and cinnamon scented diffusers are staples of the holiday season. But for some people, fragrances are more of a headache than a treat. An allergy expert at Baylor College of Medicine breaks down the sensitivities around holiday aromas.

“Patients with allergic airway diseases such as sinusitis, allergies or asthma will be more prone to fragrance sensitivity,” said Dr. Evan Li, assistant professor of medicine in the section of immunology, allergy and rheumatology at Baylor. “It is advisable to give fragrance-free products as gifts for individuals with allergic airway diseases.”

The difference between an allergy and fragrance sensitivity is how symptoms present themselves. People who are allergic to certain ingredients in products experience skin rash and are commonly diagnosed with contact dermatitis. These reactions are triggered by allergen antibodies found in the blood and respiratory tract.

Those who experience respiratory symptoms such as sneezing, coughing or congestion are usually considered to have fragrance sensitivity. These reactions are caused by the direct action of the scent particle on the respiratory tract. Products like lotions, detergents, candles, perfumes and colognes are some of the most common triggers of both allergies and fragrance sensitivity.

“While the symptoms triggered by an allergen and irritant are very similar, the mechanism of action are different,” Li said.

For those hosting a party who anticipate any guests who may have sensitive airways, Li suggests avoiding using any products that produce strong fragrances.

“It’s not really a question of a specific product, but rather any strong fragrance can cause symptoms of shortness of breath, cough, nasal congestion and wheezing in individuals with chronic allergic airway disease such as rhinitis or asthma,” he said.

Trees like the scotch pine and eastern white pine will go up in living rooms across the country during the holidays, but they also can cause allergic reactions in some individuals. Contact dermatitis can develop from skin contact with sap and respiratory symptoms can develop from inhalation of pollen. Sometimes trees can be contaminated with pollen from other trees and even molds, which can lead to symptoms of shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing or chest pressure if these allergens are inhaled. If someone in your household has any of these symptoms, consider pursuing alternatives, such as an artificial tree or omitting a tree all together.

To lessen the effects of allergies or fragrance sensitivity, Li advises consulting with an allergist to determine what kinds of tools may be helpful.

“Doctors typically recommend antihistamines, nasal sprays or inhalers to help manage symptoms if they flare up after exposure to fragrances,” said Li. “However, if you know fragrant products will affect you, the best strategy is to avoid them all together.”

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