OK, you’re still with me after those overdone puns? Good thing I don’t have plans to trade writing for standup comedy anytime soon!

On a more serious note, let’s talk about asthma. I’ve been living with it for nearly 10 years, but even before I was diagnosed, I had issues with fragrances. It started back in high school, which is probably among the worst times in life to deal with issues stemming from scented products. Everywhere I turned, someone was spraying Axe body spray in the hallway (gross) or “needing" to put on grapefruit-scented hand cream in the middle of class.

Back then, strong fragrances caused me to get headaches and a terrible face-burning feeling. A year or so later, I added asthma to those reactions. The thing was, I didn’t really talk about it except a bit around my close friends. We quietly added it to my grade 11 or 12 medical form in the event I had to leave class, but advocating for myself wasn’t something I did back then.

I’ve been out of high school for over seven years now, and a lot of these situations have decreased. People — some of them — are becoming more aware of the impact that fragrances have on other peoples’ health, whether it’s breathing (like for those of us with asthma) or migraines, because I’m not alone in my scent-sitivity. A 2016 study in Australia showed that 98 percent of the nearly 1,100 people surveyed were exposed to a fragranced environment at least once a week. Of those individuals, 33 percent reported symptoms related to a scented environment, such as:

  • respiratory difficulties and asthma
  • skin problems
  • nasal congestion
  • migraines

Sometimes, though, I come across challenges that force me to self-advocate. These have included conferences where I’m being assigned a hotel roommate, coffee dates with a friend who pulls out a tiny bottle of hand lotion by habit, or office co-workers.

I’ll admit that sometimes in the past I chose not to explain to others what their chosen products were doing to my lungs. But if they are individuals you see regularly, self-advocacy is absolutely vital. I fully believe that people simply don’t understand, they don’t want to be ignorant.

The only way to see results is to try to have the conversation. Don’t write it off or suffer through it. Find a way to have the discussion respectfully. It may take some creativity, but here are some tips that have helped me in the past.

1. Find a way to segue into the conversation

Steer gently into the discussion if you’re not up to being bold: “Oh, those candles look lovely, but I wouldn’t be able to use them at home because of my asthma.” In some situations, you may need to be a bit bolder.

Sometimes, feigning a bit of confusion helps. For example, even if you know the person is actually wearing perfume or cologne, you could say: “Yeah, I’m not good with Febreze or any of those air freshener things because of my asthma — do you mind if we open a window?”

2. Talk to the person discreetly 

If you feel comfortable, pull the person wearing the fragrance to the side and have a brief discussion about what’s going on. “Hey, I noticed you’re wearing perfume today. I’m sorry to be a pain and I wish I didn’t have to, but I have asthma and it’s really impacting my breathing."

3. Educate them

Explain briefly that while it’s not an allergy, with asthma, inhaling different substances — be it dog dander, dust, hairspray, or cold air — can cause your lungs to get irritated and trigger asthma symptoms. Likely, they will be more receptive to your request if they feel they are not being blamed: “It’s my lungs, not you” (even if it kind of is them). Without living it, they have no idea what goes on in your body. Openness is key.

4. Explore options

I had a band teacher once who said, “If I’m not within an inch of you, I don’t want to smell you." While I’d prefer that people go scent-free, I LOVE this guideline. It allows people to wear a small (proper) amount of their desired products, while keeping their scents to themselves. Personally, I’d just like to walk into someone’s house and instead of it smelling like a Glade PlugIn, it smells like, you know, Starbucks. That’s an option too (just less probable).

5. Remember, it’s not their life

If you have problems with people repeatedly needing reminders, maybe that’s just it: They need reminders. Keep it casual, but ask if they’d like you to remind them before your next visit or meeting: “Hey, it would be a lot better for my asthma if I avoided being exposed to perfumes and stuff like that. I know it’s an inconvenience, but it would help me be more productive at these meetings to not worry about my health. Would you like me to text you a reminder before our next meeting?”

For some people, lathering on a body lotion or pulling out the aerosol is as routine as brushing their teeth. It can be hard to just skip that step without a friendly reminder.

6. Find an advocate

My mom often will raise these concerns to people on my behalf, for example if they are asking what kind of gift I’d like. When someone understands your issues, it is totally OK to ask for their help, and sometimes hearing the information from a different person helps.

7. Trust the process

Yes, it’s hard, and it sucks, and I understand. You may have to distance yourself from some people for a time, or feel like a broken record, or sometimes have to suffer the consequences asthma-wise. Eventually, people will understand. I’ve been at this for 10 years, and I think my whole family gets it now. It takes time, but one way or another, you will get there.

It can be a tough conversation to explain to people that a product they enjoy and think smells good can cause problems for those of us with asthma or other medical issues. Be persistent, and hopefully these tips will help you help others understand what you’re dealing with.