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Are You Allergic to Cigarette Smoke?

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Is just a whiff of smoke enough to ruin your day? As soon as the person next to you lights one, the first thing that comes to mind is the uncomfortable memory of your most recent encounter with secondhand smoke and the runny nose, sneezing, and congestion that followed. For some, the reaction to cigarette smoke resembles an allergic reaction, leading them to believe they have a “smoke allergy.”

There are many myths about “smoking allergies” that actually make it harder to properly treat your condition. This article will help you determine if you have a “smoke allergy” and what you can do to better protect yourself from smoke-related diseases.

Myth #1: “Smoke Allergy”

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Nobody is really allergic to smoking. A large number of people insist that they are allergic to smoke produced by cigarettes or cigars, but the truth is that they have an allergy-like reaction due to other health conditions. Understanding exactly why you feel like you’re having an allergy attack when you’re around a smoker is 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 isn’t an allergen — but it is an irritant. This small difference explains why most people don’t experience relief when taking antihistamines for allergies after exposure to smoke. The key to avoiding the problems caused by cigarette smoke is to identify what type of sensitivity you have and how best to treat it.

Who is prone to “smoke allergies”?

  • children and toddlers

  • Elderly people

  • People with allergy history (anyone with allergies, asthma, eczema, etc.)

  • People who are exposed to heavy smoke for a long time

Sometimes people who are sensitive to tobacco smoke also experience allergy-like symptoms when encountering strong smells, perfumes, changes in weather or temperature.

Symptoms of Cigarette Sensitivity

For some people, exposure to tobacco smoke can cause a list of symptoms:

  • Sneeze

  • Cough

  • Watery, burning eyes

  • Runny nose

  • After nose drops

  • traffic jam

  • shortness of breath

  • headache

These symptoms appear shortly after exposure to cigarette smoke and continue for hours afterwards. In addition to these symptoms, people who are in smoky environments on a daily basis are more likely to suffer from persistent respiratory infections such as sinusitis and bronchitis, as well as the development of wheezing and asthma.

tobacco smoke exposure

A lit cigarette can release over 4,000 different chemicals into the air (80 of which are known or suspected carcinogens). Sometimes avoiding situations where people smoke is almost impossible. Often a family member smokes indoors, or a public place like a bar or restaurant allows smoking. Depending on the severity of your reaction, the mere smell of smoke on someone else’s clothing or in a room where someone was smoking can be irritating. While avoiding tobacco smoke is the best way 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 smoking is to first determine what type of sensitivity you have. There are two forms of smoke sensitivity:

  • Smoke aggravates underlying allergies: Your body becomes weakened by smoke and reacts to all those tiny pollens, dust and dander that wouldn’t normally be a problem.

  • Vasomotor rhinitis: This is a condition that has exactly the same symptoms as allergic rhinitis (or nasal allergies) but cannot be treated with antihistamines.

Allergies made worse by smoking:

An allergen is a small particle made up of proteins that the body mistakes for a dangerous invader, like a virus or other germ. Smoke contains tiny tar ash particles (you can see these particles in the form of a white cloud produced by burning tobacco). But tar ash particles are not the same as a real allergen as they are not based on proteins but are a form of carbon.

Instead of being labeled as an allergen, smoke particles are classified as an irritant. Irritants can make you quite uncomfortable, aggravate conditions like asthma and allergies, and cause other serious health problems. So, from a medical point of view, nobody can really be allergic to smoking, but they can suffer complications from their existing allergies or other diseases.

If you suffer from allergies or allergic asthma, smoking can trigger an allergic reaction because it puts extra stress on your body and immune system. The cat dander stain floating through the air that wouldn’t normally have provoked a violent reaction; but with the addition of tobacco smoke, your body can no longer process the allergens. Asthma becomes dangerous when combined with tobacco smoke – even fatal for some.

You are likely to experience complications from existing allergies if:

  1. You know you are allergic to other things like pollen, pets, mold or dust mites.

  2. You have eczema or food allergies.


  • Avoid situations where you are exposed to smoke as much as possible.

  • See an allergist to optimize your 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 like a home smoke eater will effectively remove allergens in guest rooms of smoking family members.

Vasomotor rhinitis:

Vasomotor rhinitis is a form of inflammation and irritation of the nose, throat, and eyes. Seasonal or indoor allergies are referred to as “allergic rhinitis.” This condition differs from the allergic type as it is not caused by allergens. For this reason, vasomotor rhinitis is sometimes referred to as “nonallergic rhinitis.” It causes many of the same symptoms as an allergic reaction, but is caused by highly tender or excessive amounts of blood vessels in the delicate tissue of the sinus area. The symptoms you experience are triggered by your nervous system rather than allergens.

This means that another person can tolerate cigarette smoke, while a person with vasomotor rhinitis will experience severe discomfort from the same amount of smoke. So don’t overreact to complaining about even small amounts of smoke – those small amounts REALLY affect you more than the people around you.

In addition to cigarette smoke, strong smells or weather conditions also often 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 at the same time.

You probably have vasomotor rhinitis if:

  1. They are very sensitive to other elements such as perfume, strong smells, weather changes, temperature changes or even spicy foods.

  2. If you go into a slightly warmer (or cooler) room, your nose will run or become painfully blocked.

  3. Antihistamines do not relieve symptoms.


  • Avoid as many situations as possible that could make your condition worse. 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, such as oral decongestants and saline nasal sprays, can give you some relief. Some prescription medications that have been found to be effective are antihistamine nasal sprays (as opposed to oral antihistamines, which usually have no effect on vasomotor rhinitis), antidrip anticholinergic nasal sprays, and corticosteroid nasal sprays.

  • Limit your exposure to smoke and the smell of smoke, as this is a common cause of many cases of vasomotor rhinitis. Use an air purifier such as a smoke eaters at home minimize air pollutants.

A note for people with existing allergies:

In fact, even inhaling small amounts of smoke over a long period of time can cause you to develop new allergies or even asthma. In young children, inhaling second-hand tobacco smoke significantly increases the likelihood of developing allergies as they age. 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 is make your living space a zero-tolerance smoking area. If that’s not an option, consider an air purifier as an investment in your health.

Some of the symptoms of sinusitis (sinus infection) can be very similar to the vasomotor rhinitis and allergic rhinitis described in this article. Be sure to see your doctor to diagnose your condition if tobacco smoke makes you feel bad.

Remember: Always talk to your doctor or allergist about your symptoms and treatment.

Thanks to Dan Buglio

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