Perfume, shower gel, detergent or air fresheners – scents are everywhere. What some find pleasurable can be a real problem for asthmatics, triggering asthma attacks.

We are surrounded by smells everywhere – both good and bad. Sometimes we don’t even realize it, but our nose is constantly in action. Which fragrances trigger violent reactions is extremely individual. It can be creams or shampoo, detergents or perfume, just like citrus fruits.

The long list of possible triggers makes it almost impossible to find the substance that, for example, aggravates asthma or triggers an asthma attack. The search for the cause is like a Sisyphus task, since natural fragrances are being joined by more and more artificial substances that are being developed, for example, to scent rooms. It is especially common in people with asthma.

Fragrances can influence our behavior

Fragrances are not always so strong that we can clearly perceive them and avoid them accordingly. We often absorb them unconsciously. But they all affect our brain. The industry has been taking advantage of this for a long time. In supermarkets, fragrances are used in a targeted manner to influence buying behavior.

The scent of citrus fruits, for example, has a refreshing and invigorating effect and encourages many customers to stay and shop in a store longer than originally thought. Very few people are probably aware that their behavior can possibly be traced back to scents. Asthmatics have a particularly difficult time.

With them, the lower mucous membranes are usually inflamed. These line the bronchi and trachea. They produce mucus that traps pollutants such as dust and does not even let them into the body. Fragrances can irritate the mucous membranes in such a way that breathing difficulties become worse or even trigger a dangerous asthma attack.

Fragrances are lurking everywhere

For more than 15 years, the German Allergy and Asthma Association (DAAB) has been dealing with the effects of airborne fragrances. In October 2020, for example, the organization launched an online survey on the complaints and experiences of data subjects. The project lasted until September 2021. Around 900 people affected took part.

“We suspect a connection with the increasing use of room scents for marketing purposes. Exposure of people suffering from asthma to fragrances can lead to a variety of symptoms. Around a third of them had negative reactions such as coughing, headaches or asthma attacks,” says chemist Silvia Pleschka from the DAAB.

According to the WHO, there are approximately 235 million people living with some form of asthma worldwide. The most common is bronchial asthma, which belongs to the so-called obstructive airway diseases. The airways narrow or block the flow of air – a feeling of tightness in the chest, shortness of breath and coughing fits can be the result. According to Pleschka, however, it is not possible to say exactly how many people are affected by fragrances.

“One reason for this is that the symptoms are so diverse. They range from headaches to severe migraines, from tachycardia to feeling unwell and sweating to word-finding difficulties and from coughing to dangerous asthma attacks. All of these clinical pictures have a common trigger: fragrances.” So far, there have been only a few scientific studies on the problem worldwide.

The exception is an Australian study from 2019. It deals with the effects of fragrances on our body and comes to the conclusion that fragrances can be harmful to health. But it’s usually hard to understand. Unlike pollen allergies, for example, asthmatics cannot be tested to determine exactly which fragrances they have a negative reaction to.

Education about the downsides of scents

People with a sensitivity to fragrances are often not taken seriously by those around them. “It’s important to deal with the problem openly, both in the family and with colleagues, and to be informed about the possible effects,” advises Pleschka.

Fragrances are also used in a targeted manner in offices, for example to create a feel-good atmosphere. In many areas, rooms are scented with spray or fragrance sticks. But while we can largely switch off smells and fragrances in our own environment, this is hardly possible outside of our private sphere. “Education about the downsides of scenting and consideration for sensitive and endangered people are very important here,” says Silvia Pleschka.

Author: Gudrun Heise

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