SUNDAY, Nov. 6, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Pumpkin spice candles and pine-scented air fresheners may evoke the holiday season for some. For others, those airborne fragrances trigger allergy symptoms -- from runny, itchy noses and sneezing to asthma attacks.
Allergists say as the popularity of scented products has risen, so have complaints from their patients about reactions to them.
"We're seeing more patients with the problem," said Dr. Stanley Fineman, president-elect of the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology (ACAAI). "I've seen patients who say, 'I go into somebody's house who has one of these air fresheners and I just can't stay there. I have increasing nasal symptoms, sneezing and coughing.' There is no allergy skin test for air fresheners, but people can definitely have a physiologic response to it."
Dr. J. Allen Meadows, an allergist in Montgomery, Ala., said some of his patients have to contend with scented oil diffusers and plug-in room deodorizers in the workplace. Co-workers will plug one in, causing others in nearby cubicles to start sneezing and coughing.
Often, workers who like the fragrance think those who complain are just being "difficult."
"It smells good to them, so they don't believe someone could be bothered by it," Meadows said. "I have some of the same sensations myself. If the odor of the fume smells like a food, like cinnamon apple, I don't have a problem with it. But if it smells like a flower, I have to escape."
Meadows' staff warns him about heavily perfumed patients so he can use a nasal antihistamine to control his symptoms before he goes into the exam room.
Fineman, an allergist at Atlanta Allergy & Asthma Clinic in Georgia, was scheduled to make a presentation Sunday about the risks of air fresheners and scented candles to his fellow allergists at the ACAAI meeting in Boston.
Fineman planned to cite a 2009 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health that found significant numbers of Americans affected by pollutants in everyday products.
About 11 percent of more than 2,000 adults surveyed reported hypersensitivity to common laundry products. About 31 percent reported having an "adverse reaction" to scented products on other people, and about 19 percent reported having breathing difficulties, headaches or other health problems when exposed to air fresheners. Rates were higher among people with asthma.
Scented candles and air fresheners emit VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, which are chemicals that form a gas or vapor at room temperature, Fineman said. The VOCs present in air fresheners often include formaldehyde, petroleum distillates, limonene, alcohol and esters.
High concentrations of VOCs can trigger eye and respiratory tract irritation, headaches, dizziness, and even memory impairment. A 2008 study in Environmental Impact Assessment Review by a University of Washington researcher found that many laundry detergents and room deodorizers emitted potentially dangerous VOCs. One plug-in air freshener released more than 20 different VOCs, of which seven were classified as toxic or hazardous under federal laws.
But Gretchen Schaefer, vice president of communications for the Consumer Specialty Products Association, an industry group, said that VOCs aren't necessarily harmful.
"Anything that emits a scent -- flowers or the scent of pine if you walk through a forest or your Christmas tree -- is emitting a VOC," she said.
In the United States, air fresheners are subject to the Toxic Substances Control Act and the Federal Hazardous Substances Act, which requires that manufacturers inform consumers of risks and ingredients that could contribute to that risk. But some experts say the requirements aren't stringent enough.
"The Federal Hazardous Substance Act requires that the manufacturer put the proper-use information on the label," Schaefer said. "These products are safe if you use them according to the label instructions."
The U.S. Department of Labor has more on multiple chemical sensitivities.