If you feel sick from a perfume or other substances that have a strong smell, it could be that you suffer from perfume allergy. Perfume substances are something we are exposed to every day, for example as we spend time on public transport, at work or in school. Many of the products we use on a daily basis contain perfumes and chemicals, like shampoo, soap, make-up and washing powder. Most of us do not react to these substances but if you are allergic to perfume it may be that you get eczema and other skin problems from common hygiene and household products. People with asthma may also experience that their symptoms become worse when they inhale perfume, smoke, air pollutions and other strong smells.
Perfume allergy is a problem that has been increasing during the last 50 years, most likely because of our western lifestyle. Today perfume allergy is the second most common type of contact dermatitis, after nickel allergy. Since there are perfumes and strong smells everywhere it may be hard to avoid them, and for some people the allergy can lead to long-term sick leave.
From over 2,500 existing perfume substances there are at least 100 that provokes allergies through contact. In addition, there are many substances that, even if they are not irritating as such, become allergy provoking when mixed with others and when matured, which is often the case among different hygiene products. Since many perfumes contain the same smelling substances, we are constantly subjected to them.
Perfume allergies and chemicals often lead to skin problems, like allergic eczema. As the irritating substance comes into contact with the skin, small and dry rashes that itch and sometimes break may develop. When the blisters later dry up, the skin will flake. The severity of the symptoms depends on several factors: how sensitive you are, how strong the allergy provoking substance is and how long you have been in contact with it. Many hair dyes contain very strong substances that may cause acute eczema on the face, scalp and on the neck. Among hairdressers these substances sometimes cause severe hand eczema.
If you inhale the substance via the air, the symptoms of perfume allergy may resemble those of other types of allergies: sneezing, runny nose, nasal congestion, eye irritations, itchy throat and headache. The symptoms may also affect the respiratory tract as shortness of breath, wheezing and dry cough. This may be because of an underlying asthma. But it is not always perfume allergy or asthma that causes the symptoms. Many may instead have a general hypersensitivity (sensory hyperreactivity) to perfumes, tobacco smoke, floral scents and exhaust fumes.
The best way getting rid of problems caused by perfume allergy is to avoid the irritating substances. That is done by using mild cleaning and hygiene products free from perfume. You should also speak with those responsible at work or in your school if you or your child is suffering from perfume allergy, so that they will be able to do as much as possible to limit your exposure to the irritating substance.
Eczema caused by perfume allergy is usually treated with softening skin lotions. The cream will help rehydrate the skin and form a barrier against the irritating substance. The thicker the cream is, the better the result will be. Do not be afraid to use it generously - preferably, the skin should be lubricated every day in order for the cream to be effective.
It is sometimes necessary to treat the skin with hydrocortisone cream in order to soften the inflammation and ease the itch. Some of them can be bought over-the-counter in pharmacies, but if they are not easing your symptoms within a week or so, it may be that you need something stronger prescribed by a doctor. If you are having severe hand eczema it may also be necessary to take corticosteroid tablets in order to break the vicious circle. Do not hesitate to ask your doctor about different options, and make sure you are given a medicine that helps.
If perfume exacerbates your asthma symptoms, it needs to be treated with specific asthma medicines, a combination of bronchodilators and inflammation inhibitors in the form of inhaler is what most often used. Perfume allergy or common hypersensitivity to smells cannot, however, be treated with ordinary allergy medicines.
UK/GEN/15/0057b Date of preparation: December 2015