Incense, Asthma and Allergies

Close-Up Of Incense Burning In Temple
Incense can trigger a number of reactions in those who are sensitive. Greta Mastauskaite / EyeEm / Getty Images

A reader asks, "Considering the major role that incense plays in rituals, Circles, cleansing and so on; what would be your suggestions for people trying to perform such activities that have asthma or allergies? There is not much that is more distracting then trying to concentrate on the task at hand and having it interrupted because you suddenly can't breathe and are coughing trying to get oxygen.


In many cases, the smoke from burning incense can exacerbate asthma. You do have a couple of different options, because there are a number of smoke free alternatives to using incense.

Reader RainbowSkittles, who not only has asthma but also has two kids who suffer from breathing issues, says, "What I use instead of commercial incense sticks is the loose grain incense. I can mix it with water, put it in a small bowl, and heat it up over a tealight burner. This produces the scent, without the smoke."

MyLittleHomie has a radiator in her apartment, and places frankincense crystals in a pie tin, adds a bit of water, and then places the tin on the radiator. "You can smell it all over the apartment, and there's no burning charcoal or smoke to cause my asthma to flare up."

On the other hand, if your situation is that you’re allergic to certain fragrances – and many of the commercially available incense brands contain synthetics that trigger allergic reactions – you may find that using only natural, fragrance-free incenses is the way to go.

Some readers report that if they burn dried plant material like smudge stickssage or sweetgrass, for instance – they have no reaction, but if they use commercial incense, it has a negative impact on their ability to breathe.

Keep in mind that it may not actually be the fragrance you’re allergic to, though.

A 2008 study looked at religious practices in a number of Asian countries, where incense use is routine. The researchers suggest that allergic reactions to fragrance in incense might in fact be a reaction to tiny particulates that are inhaled into the respiratory system during prolonged exposure to incense smoke.

In some cases, allergic reactions to incense can be more complicated than merely a respiratory issue. A few people have such great sensitivity that they break out itching all over, in a true anaphylactic reaction. If this is the case in your situation, be sure to check with your healthcare professional, who may be able to provide you with an antihistamine to take if you start experiencing symptoms. There are also individuals who suffer from a disorder known as Multiple Chemical Sensitivity syndrome, in which various symptoms are believed to stem from chemical exposures in the environment - incense, perfume, fragrant candles, even laundry detergent.

Interestingly, in 2014, the Catholic Diocese in Allentown, Pennsylvania, announced that they would begin using a new hypoallergenic incense during Mass. Mercy Sr. Janice Marie Johnson, coordinator of the Office for Ministries with Persons with Disabilities, said that the church's use of frankincense in their censers can "deeply affect people with respiratory problems and cause coughing fits and force them out of church to seek fresh air...

 After researching the issue, she discovered a hypoallergenic incense called Trinity Brand at two local stores that sell religious items. An Internet search turned up church supply companies that sell it on their websites. "The scents are flowers, forest and powder. Powder is the lightest scent. This type of incense will accommodate those who are allergic to the present incense being used at liturgical celebrations."

Finally, do keep in mind that if you're just using the incense as something representative of the element of Air, you can always substitute something else - a fan, feathers, or whatnot. If you're using incense as a method of cleansing a sacred space, you might want to try one of these other techniques instead: How to Cleanse a Sacred Space