Your sense of smell can be a funny thing. To some people that fragrance is delightful, but to your sensitive nose, it could be painful and unhealthy.

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If you're predisposed to itchy eyes, headaches and respiratory irritation in the presence of strong fragrances, just walking downwind of someone who's wearing perfume could trigger a reaction. You may have a hypersensitivity to one or more of the chemicals in some fragrances, and your allergy might not be limited to perfume, either. Many cosmetics and even household products, like soap and furniture polish, can contain fragrance compounds that make perfume allergy sufferers sneeze, cough or worse. Dabbing on a little cologne or perfume before a big date may make you feel sexy, but if you're allergic, it could also be a risky health proposition.

What's in Perfume?

Perfume allergies can be particularly hard to pinpoint because it's almost impossible to discover all the ingredients in a fragrance. Unlike cosmetics, recipes for fragrances are protected from government scrutiny in the United States. Manufacturers don't have to disclose the contents of what is legally considered a proprietary trade secret.

Are You Allergic?

Because fragrance is added to so many products, the culprit ruining your day could be in a perfume, food additive, household cleaning agent, cosmetic, deodorant or other product. Some common symptoms of perfume allergies are:

  • Migraines
  • Wheezing
  • Nausea
  • Headache
  • Muscle pain
  • Itchy or watery eyes
  • Flulike symptoms
  • Contact dermatitis
  • Hives
  • Hoarseness
  • Anaphylactic shock

You don't have to have all of the symptoms above to be allergic to an ingredient or ingredients in a fragrance. These symptoms can signal illnesses or reactions to substances other than fragrances. Your symptoms could also be more severe if you have asthma or other allergy-related conditions.

If you're suffering from symptoms that are interfering with your daily routine, consult a physician. Diagnostic treatments may help to identify problem substances and offer useful workarounds.

Ingredients to Watch For

Perfume allergies can range from mild and irritating to life threatening. The list of ingredients in fragrances that may cause allergic reactions is long and growing, but there are some common offenders that could be causing your discomfort:

  • Acetone
  • Amylcinnamic alcohol
  • Anisyl alcohol
  • Benzyl alcohol
  • Benzyl salicylate
  • Benzyl acetate
  • Camphor
  • Essential oils
  • Musk

If you want to limit your exposure, try going fragrance-free. In some cases, this could be challenging, though. Products advertised as "fragrance-free" may still contain fragrant ingredients included to mask less pleasant odors. Looking for the term "fragrance-free" on product labels isn't a perfect solution, but it's still a good place to start.

Your powers of observation can help, too. Start recognizing the things that seem to trigger symptoms, and eliminate them from your environment. Introduce new products one at a time, and use them sparingly at first. If you see an escalation in your symptoms, discontinue using that product immediately.

If you ever find it difficult to breathe or swallow after trying a new product or being exposed to a new perfume or cologne, seek medical help immediately.

Although you can't protect yourself from every perfume-laden breeze wafting across a crowded elevator, you can take some measures to protect yourself. With time and luck, you may be able to lose the tissues and take a deep, satisfying breath.