Is a breath of smoke enough to ruin your day? As soon as the person next to you lights up, the first thing that comes to your mind is the unpleasant memory of your last fight with passive smoke and runny nose, sneezing and congestion that followed. For some, the reaction to cigarette smoke closely resembles an allergic reaction, which leads them to believe they have “smoke allergies”.
There are many myths about smoking allergy that actually make it more difficult to properly treat your condition. This article will help you understand whether to determine if you are suffering from “smoke allergies” and what you can do to better protect yourself from diseases associated with exposure to smoking.
Myth # 1: “Allergic to Smoke”
Nobody is really allergic to smoking. A large number of people insist that they are allergic to smoke from cigarettes or cigars, but the truth is that they have an allergic reaction due to other health conditions. Understanding exactly why you feel like you have an allergy attack around a smoker is the key to understanding how to prevent future symptoms.
Why do I say there is no allergy to smoking? Because technically smoking is not an allergen, it is irritating. This small difference explains why most people experience no relief when taking an anti-allergic antihistamine medicine after exposure to smoking. The key to avoiding the problems caused by cigarette smoking is to determine the type of sensitivity you have and the best way to treat it.
Who is prone to “smoke allergies”?
Children and babies
People with allergic medical history (people with allergies, asthma, eczema, etc.)
People exposed to heavy smoke for long periods of time
Sometimes people sensitive to tobacco smoke also experience allergy-like symptoms when they encounter strong smells, perfumes, climate change or sudden changes in temperature.
Symptoms of cigarette sensitivity
For some people, exposure to tobacco smoke can cause a list of symptoms:
Watery and burning eyes
A runny nose
Shortness of breath
These symptoms appear shortly after exposure to cigarette smoke and last for hours afterwards. In addition to these symptoms, people who are in smoky environments on a daily basis are more likely to experience constant respiratory infections such as sinusitis and bronchitis, as well as the development of wheezing and asthma.
Exposure to tobacco smoke
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 smoke is almost impossible. Often a family member will smoke indoors or a public place such as a bar or restaurant will allow smoking. Depending on the severity of your reaction, only the smell of smoke on someone’s clothes or in a room where someone has smoked can cause irritation. So even though avoiding tobacco smoke is the best way to prevent “smoking allergies”, it may not be a practical solution.
Two main types of sensitivity to smoking
The best way to cure your smoking “allergy” is to first identify the type of sensitivity you are experiencing. There are two forms of sensitivity to smoking:
Allergies Underlying Smoking: Your body is weakened by smoking and starts reacting to all the bits of pollen, dust and hair that usually wouldn’t have been a problem.
Vasomotor rhinitis: this is a condition that has the same symptoms as allergic rhinitis (or nasal allergies), but cannot be treated with antihistamine allergy medicine.
Allergies aggravated by smoking:
An allergen is a small particle made up of proteins that the body mistakes for a dangerous intruder such as a virus or another germ. The 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 real allergen because they are not based on proteins, but a form of carbon.
Instead of being labeled as allergens, smoke particles are classified as irritants. Irritants can cause some discomfort, worsen diseases such as asthma and allergies and cause other serious health problems. So in medical terms, nobody can really be allergic to smoking, but they can suffer from complications from their existing allergies or other diseases.
If you have allergies or allergic asthma, smoking can trigger an allergic reaction because it puts a strain on your body and immune system. The grain of cat hair drifting in the air which normally would not have triggered a violent reaction; but with the addition of tobacco smoke, your body can no longer handle allergens. Asthma becomes dangerous when mixed with exposure to tobacco smoke, even fatal for some.
Complications to existing allergies are likely to occur if:
You know 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.
Consult an allergist to optimize existing allergy treatment or check 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 such as a domestic smoke eater is effective for removing allergens in the guest rooms of smoking family members.
Vasomotor rhinitis is a form of inflammation and irritation of the nasal area as well as of 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 have, but it is caused by excessively sensitive or excessive amounts of blood vessels in the delicate tissue of the breast area. The symptoms that occur are triggered by the nervous system rather than allergens.
This means that while another person may be able to tolerate cigarette smoking, a person with vasomotor rhinitis will experience a lot of discomfort with the same amount of smoking. So you are not overreacting when you complain about even small amounts of smoke – these small quantities ARE REALLY affecting you more seriously than those around you.
In addition to cigarette smoking, bad smells or weather conditions also often cause symptoms, so you may find that many aspects of your environment cause allergic symptoms. Some people also have allergic rhinitis and vasomotor rhinitis simultaneously.
You are likely to have vasomotor rhinitis if:
You are very sensitive to other elements such as perfume, strong smells, weather changes, temperature changes or even spicy foods.
Walking in a slightly warmer (or cooler) room makes your nose run dry or painfully closed.
Antihistamine drugs do not relieve symptoms.
Avoid as many situations as possible in which your conditions may be aggravated. This includes smoking, as well as some other vasomotor rhinitis triggers such as wearing perfume, burning scented candles, etc.
Talk to your doctor about treatment options. Some over-the-counter medications such as oral decongestants and saline nasal sprays can offer you some relief. Some prescribed medications that have proven effective are antihistamine nasal sprays (as opposed to oral antihistamines that typically have no effect on vasomotor rhinitis), drip anticholinergic nasal sprays and corticosteroid nasal sprays.
Limit your exposure to smoke and smoke odors as this is often the cause of many cases of vasomotor rhinitis. Use an air purifier like a smoke eater at home minimize the pollutants present in the air.
A note for those with existing allergies:
Inhaling even small amounts of smoke over a long period of time can actually cause new allergies or even asthma. In young children, inhaling second-hand tobacco smoke greatly increases the likelihood of developing allergies as they age. If you live with a smoker, you are likely to have multiple cases of bronchitis, pneumonia, otitis, sinusitis and other respiratory diseases.
The best thing you can do for yourself makes your living space a zero tolerance smoke area. If this is not an option, you could consider an air purifier as an investment in your health.
Some of the symptoms of sinusitis (sinus infection) can look a lot like the vasomotor rhinitis and allergic rhinitis described in this article. Be sure to consult your doctor to help diagnose your condition if tobacco smoke makes you feel under the weather.
Remember: always make sure to talk to your doctor or allergist about symptoms and treatment.