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Strong Smells Can Cause Shortness of Breath

You probably have that one uncle that always covers himself in half of a bottle of cologne before showing up at a family function.  He comes in and you give him a huge hug, but hours after everyone leaves, you can still smell his cologne.

Overwhelming scents and COPD

Maybe there is a lady at church that only comes in once a month, but when she does, her perfume fills the entire sanctuary.  She never sits on the other side of the room.  She always sits directly in front of you.  You hate to say anything because you really don’t know her that well, but her perfume is intense.

Then there is the new craze with essential oils (don’t send hate mail, I know it helps some people).  Imagine this scenario with me.  You are in a small room with someone that is using essential oils for stress relief, but now you can barely breathe because of the strong scents.

Shortness of breath due to strong smells

It all comes back to one thing, lack of knowledge.  Sometimes people don’t realize how strong scents can affect others with breathing problems, and the frustrating part of this is that many times the strong scents are ones that were once loved.

This is actually a problem that effects more than just COPD patients.  It may have a different result on someone dealing with another problem.  It could cause nausea or allergic reactions.  Many doctor’s offices now have notes posted or printed on appointment reminders that read, “Please don’t arrive wearing colognes, perfumes, or scented lotions out of consideration for our staff and the other patients.”  One of mom’s doctor’s was an oncologist as well as a hematologist, so when she would go for iron treatments she was sure not to wear anything with strong scents.  She was not one to wear strong perfumes anyway because it was too much for her, but she did like to wear lotion.  She was respectful of the people that were taking chemotherapy in the office, as they were even more sensitive to scents than she was.

How to manage strong scents

So what can be done about this?  This is where great communication is needed.  We cannot assume that the people around us automatically know the triggers for shortness of breath.  It is up to us, the caregivers, and patients to help them understand and to present that information with love.  I believe that once the end result of strong scents is shared, most people will honor you by not wearing the strong scent anymore.

Sometimes it’s a good idea to speak to someone in charge of the group that you are with to make a blanket statement for the benefit of everyone in the group.  The leader of the group may have another way to deal with the situation that would take the eyes off of you.

It seems like communication is the key to so many relational things with COPD.  If we can help those around us understand this disease, there will be more consideration for the limitations involved.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • Janet Plank moderator
    2 years ago

    Hi Dodger, I do understand and yes, with some docs get the brush off about scents in the doctors offices. They do get it though if my eyes swell up in their offices in front of them. I had my primary internal medicine doc get moved into a mall, in between a nail place and a hair salon. He was part of a hospital group of physicians.
    Needless to say, I did switch doctors and I heard recently that he moved out of that setting.
    Hand sanitizer can bring water to my eyes,as well. I’ve learned that if a nurse has on smelly cologne, to ask them to keep the door open to allow some clean air into the room.If this is a problem for you, where it affects your health, maybe it’s time to look for a new doc.
    So I do understand what you are saying and i sympathize with you. You are not alone.
    Thank you for sharing. There are more people who struggle with this, than a person realizes.
    Janet (site moderator)

  • Dodger
    3 years ago

    I am having a very hard time with any kind of smells outside of outside clean air. I have end stage emphysema caused by Alpha 1. Seems like each week it gets worse to the point of I mostly stay home now. Even in my pulmonary doctors people wear perfume. Mostly get same answer if I complain that they don’t smell anything. Is there anyone else having this problem?

  • Leon Lebowitz, BA, RRT moderator
    3 years ago

    Hi Dodger and thanks so much for sharing your experiences with the hard time you’re having with smells outside of ‘clean air’.
    In fact, many in our community have expressed similar experiences and talk a lot about it.
    If you haven’t already, you may want to check out our Facebook page at: You will find that our community members discuss all things COPD there.

    We do have several articles published on this very topic. I thought you might be interested in reading them.
    The first is about ‘avoiding triggers’:
    And the second one is about ‘strong smells and shortness of breath’:

    Thanks for being part of our community – we look forward to your continued participation.
    Leon (site moderator)

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