How patients with lung conditions avoid winter irritants

Crackling fires, fragrant evergreen boughs and cinnamon-scented air fresheners might seem like cozy winter elements. But to people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or lung cancer, those smells can be bothersome or harmful.

"I can't handle candles, no matter how gorgeous," wrote Merry, a Mayo Clinic Connect lung cancer group member. "I have to be very careful around roasting chestnuts on an open fire because all fires are smoky! We tried this once and I had one very apologetic husband."

Mayo Clinic Connect is an online community where people discuss health conditions and offer support to others. Merry and her fellow lung cancer group members have these tips for lung care:

Keep a mask or respirator handy. Each item can help protect your lungs from smells in rental cars, office buildings and other unavoidable places where scented cleaners might be used.

Mayo Clinic Connect member Jennifer wore respirator masks before everyone was doing it.

"I went to see a local production of 'The Nutcracker' and waited until it was dark to put it on, and then wrapped a scarf around my face to hide it," she wrote. "At least now it is more acceptable to wear a mask in public, and I no longer feel self-conscious about it."

Avoid fragrances. "Fragrance from candles and holiday scents for plug in devices and air freshener scents in restrooms are difficult deal with," Jennifer wrote. "I try to minimize my exposure to stuff like that because I can't stop my lungs from shutting down."

Keep eucalyptus vapors nearby. Jennifer also likes to keep Vicks VapoRub or cough drops with her because the eucalyptus vapors help open her airways.

Shorten shopping trips. Keep shopping trips brief to avoid encountering strong smells. If you can, plan your route to avoid irritating perfume counters and cleaning product aisles.

Of course, sometimes it's hard to avoid smells when holiday scents like pine cones and Christmas wreaths are unavoidably placed right at the front entrance. In these cases, slipping on a mask can help.

Travel with an inhaler. Planes and trains can put you in close quarters with people and their fragrances. Make sure you pack an inhaler in your carry-on.

Check the church schedule. Since smells like traditional incense can bother people, many places of worship announce either online or in bulletins which services will use it. If your church doesn't, call and ask.

Sue, a Mayo Clinic Connect member, wrote that she remembers the incense from her childhood. "Often in the car on the way home, 2 or 3 of us would be hacking and wheezing, and no one ever knew why."

Ask for fragrance-free space. It's not uncommon for offices, community spaces and clinics to ask that people refrain from wearing perfume or using harsh cleaning products. Ask a manager to designate the space fragrance-free if needed.

Get vaccinated against respiratory diseases. COVID-19, influenza, pneumonia, whooping cough (pertussis) and tuberculosis all have vaccines that can help protect lung health. Ask your health care provider for more information.

Wear a scarf. Cold, dry air can irritate airways, leading to wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. Wrapping a scarf around your nose and mouth can help warm the air before it enters your lungs. On particularly cold days, try breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth.

To get more tips from the lung cancer and lung health groups, search for the Mayo Clinic Connect community online. You do not need to be a Mayo Clinic patient to participate.

  1. Holiday scents and asthma. American Lung Association. Accessed Jan. 4, 2022.
  2. Vaccines that protect against infectious respiratory diseases. American Lung Association. Accessed Jan. 4, 2022.
  3. Weather and your lungs. American Lung Association. Accessed Jan. 4, 2022.
  4. Staying (lung) safe this holiday season. Mayo Clinic Connect. Accessed Jan. 4, 2022.