A spritz of cologne or perfume may do wonders for your dating life, but it has no place in a hospital room, argue a pair of doctors in an editorial published in this month’s Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ).

“While artificial scents are designed to make us more attractive, they may result in unintended harm to those who are vulnerable,” wrote Dr. Ken Flegel and Dr. James Martin. “There is emerging evidence that asthma in some cases is primarily aggravated by artificial scents. This is particularly concerning in hospitals, where vulnerable patients with asthma or other upper airway or skin sensitivities are concentrated.”

Flegel, senior editor of the CMAJ, and Martin, a faculty member in the Department of Medicine at McGill University in Montréal, Quebec, point to research showing that 27 percent of asthmatic people report having their condition worsened by these scents and that 30 percent of the general population experience some degree of sensitivity to other people’s store bought smells. In addition to perfume, these scents can include secondhand smoke, bleach, and other cleaning fluids.

According to the authors, it’s recently become accepted that the symptoms of asthma, an autoimmune disorder, are only partially caused by actual allergens in the environment — irritants that trigger inflammation in the airways are also an indirect cause.

“The risk of experiencing symptoms from exposure to scents has been reportedly related to the presence of airway hyperresponsiveness, a defining characteristic of asthma, and to the severity of asthma itself,” they further offered as evidence for their stance. “We have much to learn about the mechanisms underlying scent sensitivity, but we know enough now to take precautionary measures in our hospitals.”

It’s a precautionary measure that’s been taken in many a public environment, with the doctors correctly noting that workers have successfully sued their employers to change the policy on perfumes in the workplace. Similarly, many workplaces and some hospitals in Canada already try to encourage a scent-free work environment whenever possible. Still, the doctors say, it’s not quite enough.

“The high prevalence of asthma and its adverse effects on health and productivity argue strongly for greater consideration of the air we breathe in our health care centers,” they wrote. “Hospital environments free from artificial scents should become a uniform policy, promoting the safety of patients, staff and visitors alike. As education and promotion programs have some effect on this practice, these programs too ought to be part of our accreditation standards.”

In the meantime, local hospitals “must take the lead, particularly in spaces where susceptible patients wait,” they concluded.

Source: Artificial scents have no place in our hospitals. CMAJ. 2015.