Search IconSearch
December 16, 2020/Health Conditions/Lung

How to Keep Holiday Scents From Causing Asthma Attacks

Key tip: minimize your exposure

scented buring candle and evergreens

The holidays are a time of celebration and a period when we can experience sensory overload in the best way. Bright lights, memorable songs and lots and lots of smells.


Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

For many people, the smells of cinnamon- or pine-scented candles or a freshly cut tree evokes good memories. But for some people, those well-known aromas present a serious health risk.

Decorations that fill your home with holiday scents can jump-start nasal congestion, sneezing and a runny nose in just about anyone. But, the health risks are higher if you have asthma, says pulmonologist Katina Nicolacakis, MD.

The scented risk of asthma

According to the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, respiratory illnesses peak during the holidays. Research from the University of Washington also found roughly one-third of people with asthma have chemical hypersensitivity, and more than one-third reported irritation related to scented products.

These fragrances can be so strong for individuals with hypersensitivity to odors that they can irritate the respiratory system to the point of triggering an asthma attack.

“There are many patients for whom anything scented – candles, pine cones, right down to their live Christmas tree – will spark an asthma attack,” Dr. Nicolacakis says. “These are people who just can’t have scented things in their homes.”

However, there are things you can do to minimize your risk.

Lowering the holiday scent trigger point

Overall, Dr. Nicolacakis says, avoidance is key. But there are a number of other ways that you can protect yourself from potential asthma attacks in the flood of holiday scents.

  1. Avoid live trees. The dust and pollen clinging to individual evergreen needles are the culprits in sparking an asthma attack. Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology research revealed 70% of molds found on live trees can set off asthma, fatigue and sinus congestion. And, once inside the home, the mold count can spike fivefold within two weeks. “The reaction to trees is very individual,” Dr. Nicolacakis says. “There are also chemicals released when the wood is cut, and there are oils on the tree.”
  2. Avoid scented candles. Burning scented candles can release chemicals into the air, including toluene (a clear, flammable liquid found in petroleum) and benzene (a compound found in the air resulting from burning coal and oil emissions). The main issue is that scented candles don’t burn hot enough to destroy the dangerous molecules they spit out, and they’re often lit in unventilated areas. That combination raises the risk of an asthma attack, Dr. Nicolacakis says.
  3. Try an artificial tree. To avoid the live-tree scent, opt for an artificial tree. But, be sure it isn’t coated in spray-on snow, pine-scented sprays or oils. Spray-on snow includes a slew of chemicals, such as acetone and methylene chloride, that can bring on an asthma attack or other allergic reaction.


  1. Get a flu shot. If your risk for an asthma attack is moderate to severe, talk to your primary care physician about getting a flu shot. It could protect you from other illnesses that might increase your vulnerability to other asthma triggers.
  2. Be prepared. While guidelines around the current COVID-19 pandemic mean you won’t be encountering these scents at the home of friends or family, you still might come across them while running necessary errands like grocery shopping. To be prepared, Dr. Nicolacakis recommends you take any prescription medications and carry your rescue inhaler with you. The prior planning could be a big help if you’re exposed to any substances that irritate your lungs.
  3. Minimize your exposure. The only way to drive the asthma attack risk to as low as possible during the holidays, though, is to simply steer clear of anything that might upset your lungs, Dr. Nicolacakis says. Avoidance is the best precautionary measure you can take.


Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Person holding cup of hot tea, with honey jar floating in background
February 23, 2024/Ear, Nose & Throat
Why Your Throat Tickles — And How To Stop It

Often, a throat tickle is due to a cold, allergies or GERD — but see a doctor if it won’t go away

male sitting on couch using inhaler and holding chest
January 9, 2024/Lung
Understanding the Difference Between Asthma and COPD

Both conditions have similar symptoms, but different causes and treatments

male doing yoga breathing exercises seated on a bed
December 17, 2023/Lung
Should You Try an Alternative Asthma Treatment?

The effectiveness and safety of many of these options are unknown, so it’s best to stick to traditional care

asthma triggers floating around a set of lungs and a person
December 10, 2023/Lung
How To Stop an Asthma Cough

Avoid triggers like dust, smoke and cold air to lessen your chances of coughing

woman in her forties, using an inhaler
November 27, 2023/Lung
Why Sex Hormones Can Help (or Hurt) Your Asthma

Developmental changes like puberty and menopause can impact symptom severity

A child and a man both using an inhaler
August 17, 2023/Lung
Can You Outgrow Asthma?

Symptoms may lessen over time, but the condition never truly goes away

Person sneezing and wheezing inside home.
October 30, 2022/Allergies
Signs You Could Have Allergic Asthma

You’ll likely have symptoms of both allergies and asthma at once

physician mom child asthma action plan doctor appointment
April 10, 2022/Lung
What’s an Asthma Action Plan? (And How To Create Your Own)

Being prepared is key when you have asthma

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims