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updated 11/6/2011 12:53:38 PM ET 2011-11-06T17:53:38

People with asthma or allergies may want to avoid air fresheners and other chemicals used to spread fragrant scents through their homes, and their doctors should be aware of the hazards.

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"The chemicals in some of these products can trigger the nasal congestion, sneezing and the runny nose," Dr. Stanley Fineman, an allergist with Emory University and the Atlanta Allergy & Asthma Clinic. "With the asthmatics, there's really good data showing their lung function changes when they're exposed to these compounds."

Fineman said that he was hoping to raise awareness of the issue, so that doctors and allergy and asthma patients would be more aware of a potential cause of irritation. As the incoming president of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, he spoke today (Nov. 6) at the group’s meeting in Boston.

Increasing use

"A lot of patients say that they don't correlate an increase of their symptoms with exposure," Fineman told MyHealthNewsDaily. "One of the things that I'm trying to do in my talk is make our members, the allergists that are in practice, more aware of this problem."

Fineman said there is not necessarily an increase in allergies to any of the compounds in fragrance products, but that products such as air fresheners, scented candles, plug-in deodorizers and wick diffusers seem to be used much more often.

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"People who have asthma, a large number of them are chemically sensitive, and therefore find fragrant products irritating," said Stanley Caress, a professor in the department of environmental studies at the University of West Georgia. "Most commercial perfume products, even air fresheners, have chemical makeups and therefore are potential irritants."

A 2009 study by Caress and Anne Steinenmann at the University of Washington found that nearly a third of people with asthma also have chemical hypersensitivity, and more than a third reported irritation from scented products.

"The more you're around, the more likely it is to cause an attack," Caress said. "People with asthma, many of them should try to avoid artificially fragranced products."

"Natural" products

Caress said that advice can apply to products that may be labeled "natural" as well. "Some people have natural allergies to things like wood, so they might have trouble with things like that as well."

There are other ways people can make their homes smell good, Fineman said, for example some people have turned to cookie baking.

"As allergists, we are specialists in determining what triggers a patient's symptoms," he said. "This is basically just another aspect of what we do, in terms of finding out what triggers a patient's symptoms, and how we can help them deal with it."

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