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Is just one breath of smoke enough to ruin your day? As soon as the person next to you lights up, the first thing to cross your mind is the unpleasant memory of your last clash with secondhand smoke and the runny nose, sneezing, and congestion that followed. For some, the reaction to cigarette smoke closely resembles an allergic reaction, which leads them to believe that they have “smoke allergies”.
There are a lot of “smoke allergy” myths that actually make it harder to properly treat your condition. This article will help you tell if determine whether you are affected by “smoke allergies” and what you can do to better protect yourself from the illnesses associated with smoke exposure.
#1 Myth: “Allergic to Smoke”
No one is really allergic to smoke. A large number of people insist that they are allergic to smoke created by cigarettes or cigars, but the truth is that they have having an allergy-like reaction due to other health conditions. Understanding exactly why you feel like you are having allergy attack when around a smoker is the key to understanding how to prevent future symptoms.
Why do I say that there is no such thing as a smoke allergy? Because technically smoke is not an allergen – but it is an irritant. This little difference explains why most people feel no relief when they take antihistamine allergy medicine after exposure to smoke. The key to avoiding the problems caused by cigarette smoke is determining what type of sensitivity you have and how best to treat it.
Who is Prone to “Smoke Allergies”?
- Children and Infants
- Elderly Persons
- People with allergy history (anyone with allergies, asthma, eczema, etc)
- People exposed to heavy smoke for long periods of time
Sometimes people who are sensitive to tobacco smoke will also experience allergy-like symptoms when they encounter strong odors, perfumes, weather changes or temperature changes.
Symptoms of Cigarette Sensitivity
For some people, exposure to tobacco smoke can cause a list of symptoms:
- Watery, burning eyes
- Runny nose
- Post nasal drip
- Shortness of breath
These symptoms appear shortly after exposure to cigarette smoke and last for hours afterward. In addition to these symptoms, people who are in smoky environments on a daily basis are more likely to experience constant respiratory infections like sinusitis and bronchitis as well as the development of wheezing and asthma.
Tobacco Smoke Exposure
A lit cigarette is capable of releasing over 4,000 different chemicals into the air (80 of these are known or suspected carcinogens). Sometimes avoiding situations where people are smoking is almost impossible. Often a family member will smoke indoors, or a public place like a bar or restaurant will allow smoking. Depending on the severity of your reaction, just the smell of smoke on someone’s clothing or in a room where someone had smoked can cause irritation. So, even though avoidance of tobacco smoke is the best method to prevent “smoke allergies”, it may not be a practical solution.
Two Main Types of Smoke Sensitivity
The best way to treat your “allergy” to smoke is by first identifying what sort of sensitivity you are experiencing. There are two forms of smoke sensitivity:
- Smoke Aggravating Underlying Allergies: your body is weakened by smoke and begins reacting to all the tiny bits of pollen, dust and dander that usually would not have been a problem.
- Vasomotor Rhinitis: this is a condition that has the exact same symptoms as allergic rhinitis (or nasal allergies), but cannot be treated by antihistamine allergy medicine.
An allergen is a small particle that is made up of proteins that the body mistakes for a dangerous intruder like a virus or other germ. Smoke contains tiny tar ash particles (you can see these particles in the form of a white cloud created by burning tobacco). But tar ash particles are not the same as a true allergen because they are not protein based, but a form of carbon.
Instead of being tagged as an allergen, smoke particles are classified as an irritant. Irritants can cause you quite a bit of discomfort, worsen illnesses like asthma and allergies, and cause other serious health problems. So, in medical terms, no one can really be allergic to smoke, but they can suffer complications to their existing allergies or other illness.
If you have allergies or allergic asthma, smoke can trigger an allergic reaction because it is putting an extra strain on your body and immune system. The speck of cat dander drifting through the air that would not have normally set off a violent reaction; but with the addition of tobacco smoke, your body can no longer handle the allergens. Asthma becomes dangerous when mixed with exposure to tobacco smoke-even deadly for some.
You are likely to experience complications to existing allergies if:
- You know that you are allergic to other things like pollen, pets, mold or dust mites.
- You have eczema or food allergies.
- Avoid as many situations as you can where you are exposed to smoke.
- See an allergist to optimize your existing allergy treatment, or see if you have developed new allergies.
- Run an air purifier to reduce the number of allergens in the air. Even a smaller, portable air filter like a home smoke eater is effective at removing allergens in guest rooms of smoking family members.
Vasomotor Rhinitis is a form of inflammation and irritation of the nasal area as well as the throat and eyes. Seasonal or indoor allergies are called “allergic rhinitis”. This condition is different from the allergic type because it is not caused by allergens. For this reason, Vasomotor Rhinitis is sometimes called “non-allergic rhinitis”. It causes many of the same symptoms that an allergic reaction would, but is caused by highly sensitive or excessive amounts of blood vessels in the delicate tissue of the sinus area. The symptoms you experience are trigger by your nervous system rather than allergens.
What this means is while another person may be able to tolerate cigarette smoke, a person with vasomotor rhinitis will experience a lot of discomfort with the same amount of smoke. So you are not overreacting when you complain about even small amounts of smoke – these small amounts REALLY ARE affecting you more severely than those around you.
In addition to cigarette smoke, often strong odors or weather conditions will also cause symptoms, so you may find that many aspects of your environment cause allergy-like symptoms. Some people even have allergic rhinitis and vasomotor rhinitis simultaneously.
You are likely to have vasomotor rhinitis if:
- You are highly sensitive to other elements like perfume, strong odors, changes in weather, changes in temperature, or even spicy foods.
- Walking into a slightly warmer (or cooler) room makes your nose runny or painfully stuffy.
- Antihistamine medications do not alleviate the symptoms.
- Avoid as many situations as possible where your condition might be aggravated. This includes smoke, as well as some other vasomotor rhinitis triggers like wearing perfume, burning scented candles, etc.
- Talk to your doctor about treatment options. Some over the counter medications like oral decongestants and saline nasal sprays may offer you some relief. Some prescription medications that have been proven effective are antihistamine nasal sprays (as opposed to oral antihistamines which typically have no effect on vasomotor rhinitis), anti-drip anticholinergic nasal sprays and corticosteroid nasal sprays.
- Limit your exposure to smoke and smoke odor as this is often the cause of many vasomotor rhinitis cases. Use an air purifier like a home smoke eater to minimize airborne pollutants.
A Note to Those with Existing Allergies:
Inhaling even small amounts of smoke over a long period of time can actually cause you to develop new allergies or even asthma. In young children, second hand tobacco smoke inhalation greatly increases the likeliness of developing allergies when they get older. If you live with a smoker, you are likely to have more cases of bronchitis, pneumonia, ear infections, sinus infections, and other respiratory illnesses.
The best thing you can do for yourself make your living space a zero-tolerance smoke area. If this is not an option, you might want to consider an air purifier as an investment in your health.
Some of the symptoms of sinusitis (sinus infection) can closely resemble the vasomotor rhinitis and allergic rhinitis described in this article. Be sure to see your doctor to help you diagnose your condition if tobacco smoke has you feeling under the weather.
Remember: always be sure to talk to your doctor or allergist about your symptoms and treatment.