Air fresheners–Go Organic…Not!

Tomorrow starts the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, & Immunology national meeting in Orlando.  Great fun and food, but more importantly, great new information about allergy.  If you watch the news at all, you’re bound to hear about natural products for your health.  Organic anyone? 

Read this blog about a patient who only THOUGHT she had allergy; it was really volatile organic compounds (VOC) causing her symptoms of sneezing and nasal irritation that made her think she had allergies. 

Case reports like Mary’s are helpful to instruct allergists in the best treatment methods for our patients with rhinitis.  Sometimes it’s allergic and sometimes it isn’t. 

Take the following report for instance: 

Love the smell as long as I can breathe!

They may smell sweet, but popular air fresheners can cause serious lung problems.

That’s the message from a new study presented at the annual meeting of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). Home fragrance products often contain volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that include such nasty chemicals as formalehyde, petroleum distillates, limonene, esters and alcohols. (Download a copy of the presentation here)

Exposures to such VOCs — even at levels below currently accepted safety recommendations — can increase the risk of asthma in kids. That’s because VOCs can trigger eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches and dizziness, as Dr. Stanley Fineman, ACAAI president-elect, pointed out:

This is a much bigger problem than people realize. About 20 percent of the population and 34 percent of people with asthma report health problems from air fresheners. We know air freshener fragrances can trigger allergy symptoms, aggravate existing allergies and worsen asthma.

MORE: 5 Ways Americans’ Allergies Are Getting Worse

And if you hope that “all-natural” fragrance products can give you a nice scent without the chemicals, Fineman has bad news for you — even products marketed as organic tend to have hazardous chemicals. That shouldn’t be surprising since fragrance products don’t eliminate bad smells; they just cover them up, and that usually requires something strong.

Fineman suggests that you’d be better off simply opening up your window and letting fresh air in — though that advice might not work well where I live.  OK, I get it!

The study also gives some much-needed attention to the problem of indoor air pollution. While air freshener-related asthma is certainly a health hindrance in the developed world — at least among those who like to live in artificially sweet-smelling homes — indoor air pollution is a major health catastrophe for much of the developing world, one that leads to the premature deaths of nearly 2 million people a year according to the World Health Organization. The majority of those affected are very poor women and children who might spent hours cooking food over a wood-burning fire in a hut with little ventilation.

To read more about indoor air pollution and how to avoid it, see:


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Too Good to Be True

Here’s a holiday tale that happens over and over again.  You’re an animal lover. You’re a college student and  get to come home for Thanksgiving to see your family and your cat! Cats have been a part of your life since age 5,  but in the past six months, what were mild allergy symptoms have gotten worse, causing sneezing, itchy, puffy eyes, and hives. Allergy tests have proven what her family suspected.  Oops!

 Life’s sweetest pleasures — a glass of wine, a beautifully scented room, the unconditional love of a pet — can sometimes set off fits of sneezing, coughing, hives and even serious asthma attacks.  I’m allergic to my three best friends!

An estimated 40 million to 50 million Americans suffer from asthma or other allergic diseases, and the incidence is increasing. Asthma rates alone have more than tripled in 25 years, now affecting more than 22 million people.  Why?

Theories include not only allergy, but irritants such as air pollutants, dietary changes and changes in lifestyle. Genes also are a factor, and people who have allergies are also more sensitive to irritants.  So what are some of these irritants that you can’t treat with allergy shots?

•Air fresheners and scented candles: Sometimes, the irritating trigger is right under your nose.  But don’t listen to just me.  Atlanta allergist Stanley Fineman, president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology says, “I’ve been seeing more and more adults who are having problems with air fresheners–they’re coming in with all kinds of symptoms,” from sneezing and congestion to headache, coughing, fatigue and asthma.

Candles and air fresheners may emit volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, such as formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, limonene and other substances that increase asthma risk in children and can trigger eye and respiratory irritation and other health problems.

Candles burning

Treatment plans might include medication, changes in home décor or other avoidance strategies, but it starts with being aware. “People with asthma or respiratory sensitivity need to take precautions,” Fineman says, and doctors “may not have air fresheners on their radar screen. It’s helpful if we start thinking about that as another potential problem.”  Keep in mind, however, that allergy shots DON’T work for irritants such as odors.

•Alcoholic beverages:Reactions to wine or other alcohol-containing drinks are rare, but symptoms can range from rash to severe asthma attacks, says allergist Sami Bahna,

Sami Bahna

chief of allergy and immunology at Louisiana State University Medical School in Shreveport.

Potential allergens that occur naturally in beer and wine include hops, barley, ethanol, grapes, tryptamine, tyramine, wheat and histamine, and there may be added ingredients such as egg whites or sulfites, he says. “About a third of asthmatics can have difficulty with alcohol,” possibly in reaction to sulfites or other preservatives, he says.


In some cases, a mild allergy to a wine ingredient pairs up with a mild allergy to something in food, such as cheese, and the combination can cause an allergic reaction.

•Pets: More than 90% of homes have “measurable dog and cat allergens,” even those that don’t have a resident pet, says  allergist Dana Wallace, president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.

Animal dander, particularly cat dander, is “light and airborne for a long time.” People track it from their homes into stores, schools and homes of friends.

She advises patients to find new homes for the pets, but “in 30 years of practice, I can count on one hand the number who have willingly given up a pet.” Because it’s almost impossible to avoid pet dander anyway, she says, allergy shots are usually recommended to help patients tolerate exposure.

Patients are often willing to keep cats out of the bedroom, but “I refuse to get rid of them,” many patients say. “They’re definitely a part of the family.”

Pick Your Pet!

So what about you?  Are you willing to give up the holiday scents, a good glass of wine, or indoor pets just for the sake of allergy?

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