Help me manage my growing sensitivity to fragrance
October 23, 2014 2:31 PM   Subscribe

I've gotten increasingly sensitive to fragrance over the past couple of years, and it's starting to cause me real problems. Whenever I smell Febreze or anything with a very strong fragrance, my throat closes up, I can "taste" the smell, I sneeze and my nose runs, my eyes water, and I get a migraine that can incapacitate me for hours. I need to be able to function while travelling for my work: please help me figure out how to handle this.

I've googled for solutions, but the information I've found is mostly either unscientific woo nonsense, or designed to help achieve workplace accommodation resolving things like one smelly coworker. That won't help me: I need to be able to travel. I've had difficulty in airplanes, restaurants, public bathrooms, taxis, hotel rooms and conference centres. Las Vegas almost killed me, and much of South America, the Middle East and India does the same. Even a few minutes in some environments will knock me out for hours afterwards.

I've tried wearing a face mask like people do in Asia, but I can't do it all the time and it makes me self-conscious. I do normally carry a wrap, and holding it over my mouth and nose helps a little. I've considered e.g. asking to be moved to fragrance-free rooms in hotels, but I assume most don't have such a thing, and often I don't speak the language of the country I'm in. I am frequently not making my own travel arrangements, and my work requires me to be flexible -- I don't want to come off like a prima donna.

Suggestions? I would especially love science-based answers about things I could carry with me to eradicate fragrances, or products I could use to somehow neutralize their effects on me. I'd be interested in anything that would or might strengthen my resilience. I would also, I think, consider carrying non-obnoxious informational cards I could give out to people, in hopes of persuading them to rethink the products they're using. It kills me that people are trying to create an appealing experience for their customers by using fancy scents, and getting it so, so wrong, at least for me.
posted by Susan PG to Health & Fitness (16 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Do you take a daily allergy medication (antihistamine)? That would be a good place to start. (Apologies if you mentioned it, I read your question twice and didn't see it.)
posted by fiercecupcake at 2:41 PM on October 23, 2014 [3 favorites]

Are you sure being bothered by smells is the cause and not the effect of the smells? I get migraines and one of the first signs I get that a migraine is coming is that I can smell EVERYTHING. And strong smells like Febreeze are just unbearable, extra super-duper strong and will definitely bring on any headache that isn't already in full bloom. Here's info on sensitivity to smells and migrain. If that sounds like you, then see your doc about migraine treatment.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 2:58 PM on October 23, 2014 [8 favorites]

The "bucket theory" says that reducing your contact with as many allergens as possible will reduce your reaction to any one allergen. So use only fragrance-free personal products and cleaning products, wash your bedding often in hot water (gets rid of dust mites), use a HEPA filter in the house, etc.

I also find that I'm most sensitive when I'm stressed out. I know, stress is apparently the cause of *everything*. Doing yoga, breathing exercises, getting sleep, etc. will help.

Then again...I'm hoping other people have more suggestions. The older I get the more sensitive I am.

You also might want to consider going to an allergist. You might be a good candidate for allergy shots.
posted by radioamy at 3:01 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I too have an allergy to foods and insect bites/stings, and many fragrances-- my skin turns red and starts to itch, my face gets puffy, my throat and lips start to swell. Febreeze is horrible stuff. Just touching anything that's been sprayed with it will set off a reaction. When I travel I sometimes take Benadryl/diphenhydramine pre-emptively (especially during allergy season, when my immune system is already on high alert and primed to react that much more quickly) and I always carry tons of Benadryl (the children's version that dissolves in your mouth is the fastest acting and you can simply double the children's dose to have an adult dose*), an inhaler/bronchial dilator, and an epi-pen. That will stop an anaphylactic type of reaction (which it does not sound like you are having actually) in its tracks, something that is a concern to me as I've had some pretty scary moments overseas in countries where I could not speak the language.

Definitely see an allergist, if for no other reason than to find out exactly what kinds of things you are allergic to (you might find that you have a sensitivity rather than a reaction, for example) and whether allergy shots might work for you. Also, increasing your own base of knowledge about allergies and allergic reactions might allow you to be less stressed about potential reactions, and that might help decrease the severity of your symptoms in some cases as stress can ramp up the reaction.

Here's the thing, though: I don't think you're going to have much luck changing the rest of the world, even with informational cards, so your long-term plans might have to include less travel.

(*This does not work the other direction; do not snap tabs/pills in half to give to a child.)
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 3:02 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Ordinary masks probably aren't going to do much for you, because they only filter out particulates, but there are activated charcoal containing masks available, though at $14.95 apiece, I think the linked product is ridiculously overpriced and I include it only as an example.

This problem can be progressive, however, and I know several people who after a number of years have reached an endpoint such that they can barely leave their houses without getting sick -- and I believe the most significant thing you could do for yourself right now is buy some long term disability insurance in case that happens to you. And you might want to start seeing a doctor for this issue specifically, both to try to keep it under control and to build up a file should it happen to develop into a major disability.
posted by jamjam at 3:41 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I Can Breathe masks have helped me cope with fragrances at work and on the bus.
posted by Carol Anne at 4:51 PM on October 23, 2014

I usually pack my own pillowcase, sheet (maybe two sheets), and towels. It's bulky and a pain but it helps a lot in hotel rooms. I fold one of the sheets over the top edge of the bedding, so that's what's near my face and under my chin.

If you can find unscented laundry detergent to bring with you (powdered is best), you can pack that too.
posted by amtho at 5:06 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have chemical sensitivities, which include all the things that are giving you problems. I found that by reducing my exposure to the problems, I have a chance to heal a bit and I don't react as quickly. Check your home and get rid of all drier sheets, microfiber furniture, carpet, plug ins, aerosols, and harsh detergents. Use an air purifier at night. You may also want to talk to your doctor about carrying a rescue inhaler.

I ask people to please not clean their homes before I visit and I look for yuppie hotels that use environmentally friendly products. I've also requested hotel rooms that have not been used the night before- less likely that they are freshly cleaned.
posted by myselfasme at 5:09 PM on October 23, 2014

I used to have this problem too until I developed allergies and/or chronic sinus infections that keep me chronically stuffy so that I can't smell many fragrances anymore.

I don't really recommend this approach.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:59 PM on October 23, 2014

Nthing good long term disability insurance and documenting this problem with medical records!
posted by zdravo at 10:28 PM on October 23, 2014

I can get an almost instant headache to a wide range of (manufactured) scents, and what i've found helps is to use a sinusitis spray as soon as possible. Also, in Lush, purveyor of all sorts of hideously scented things, I hear they give people pots of coffee beans to smell as this helps overcome the other smells. I've never tried it myself though.
posted by london explorer girl at 7:08 AM on October 24, 2014

Please do say something, otherwise the hotel folks will never know how many of us there are :)
posted by amtho at 8:06 AM on October 24, 2014 [4 favorites]

I've never used them, but if you click around on the I Can Breathe Masks Carol Anne linked, there's these rather femme "Elegant Honeycomb Lace Masks" - I think if you found a scarf/shawl that coordinated with one of those color schemes, it would be very discreet and cause you less self-consciousness.
posted by Juliet Banana at 10:04 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm also recommending seeing an allergist and getting on shots if you have the money for it. It takes a couple months to see results but it helped me so much.

I haven't tried these but saw them mentioned here on the green.
nose filters

I don't know how practical that would be if you're flying but a portable hepa air filter would help in your hotel room. My sister use to take one on trips.

Saline nose spray, then blowing will help get whatever is bothering you out of your nose. If you're still around the scent, you'll have to keep repeating this. I found that getting whatever is bothering you out of your airways will help get rid of that "feel like crap" feeling.

If you can handle natural scents, a small film of Vick's vapor rub on the inside of your nose blocks all other smells. I saw people saying that it's what coroners use around dead bodies and figured it would help with perfume (my sister is allergic to different scents than me and it's caused some friction). I think it also covers the mast cells which cause an allergic reaction. The menthol makes it easier to breath.
posted by stray thoughts at 11:10 PM on October 25, 2014

Saline nose spray, then blowing will help get whatever is bothering you out of your nose. If you're still around the scent, you'll have to keep repeating this. I found that getting whatever is bothering you out of your airways will help get rid of that "feel like crap" feeling.

Oh, this reminds me, when I have allergies, I wash my nose out in the sink and it really helps. Not with a neti pot or anything, just with my hands. The basic procedure is: 1 Cup hands and fill with water. 2: Put nose underwater in your hands. 3. Blow (like when you're blowing your nose). I'm not sure why this is so much more effective than just blowing my nose, but it really does seem to calm the allergies down. It's a little gross I guess, but you're already at a sink to do this, so you can just wash your hands afterwards.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:59 PM on October 25, 2014

I've suffered from fragrance sensitivities for over ten years, and have some of the same reactions you do. It's particularly difficult when I travel. I've heard good things from frequent travelers about the Wein Mini-Mate wearable air purifier, and I plan to order one soon.
posted by velvet winter at 10:46 PM on October 28, 2014

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