Most of the time, you may see cigarette smoke described as a stinky nuisance. However, for some people, cigarette smoke can be so much worse. The minute you get a whiff of that distinctive smell, your sinuses start clogging up, and you may even find yourself sneezing. One study, in fact, found that 34% of healthy nonsmoking adults surveyed said they reported one or more nasal symptoms around cigarette smoke.
If you are one of those people who find yourself sensitive to cigarette smoke, you may wonder if you could possibly be allergic to cigarette smoke. Rest assured, it’s not your mind playing tricks on you. Cigarette smoke is linked to allergic responses and nasal symptoms, which we’ll explore more below. You can also learn ways to avoid and treat cigarette smoke allergies or sensitivities.
Is there such a thing as a cigarette or tobacco allergy?
Yes, you can be allergic to tobacco and even just plain old sensitive to cigarette smoke. Even more, for people who already have respiratory issues, cigarette smoke could also make the problem worse. You might also just be sensitive to cigarette smoke.
One study suggested that people can have an allergy to tobacco itself. Even dating back to 1933, skin tests published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed some sensitivity to tobacco extract. The study also stated it was theorized that people might have allergic reactions to tobacco proteins.
Today, studies continue to look at cigarette smoke allergies, and people report a wide range of health symptoms around secondhand smoke.
- Runny nose
- Difficulty with breathing
- Watery eyes
Cigarette smoke may also make you more sensitive to allergens overall. In another study in the European Respiratory Journal, 39.5% of a passive smoking (or secondhand) group and 58.2% of an active smoking group had bronchial activity after being exposed to histamines. This suggests that even passive smokers may be affected by heightened allergic sensitivity.
Further, a report from the CDC stated that skin prick tests found more allergen sensitivity among secondhand smoke-sensitive people. Allergen sensitivity was at 70% for the smoke-sensitive group, compared to 27% for the non-sensitive group.
A test on mice in Frontier in Neuroscience showed that administering a cigarette smoke solution increased allergic responses. The study suggested that patients who already had allergic rhinitis and were exposed to cigarette smoke could experience worse rhinitis symptoms from the cigarette smoke.
You can also have allergy-like symptoms from smoke without actually being allergic to it. According to the Mayo Clinic, cigarette smoke may even cause non-allergic rhinitis. That’s when the mucus membranes in your nose become swollen and cause symptoms like a stuffy nose or sneezing, but it’s not caused by allergies.
One study found that cigarette smoke can actually cause rhinitis symptoms, which can lead to nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing and itching. However, the study found those symptoms were independent of allergic sensitization. A study listed in the National Library of Medicine also stated that increased contact dermatitis is associated with smoking.
According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, secondhand smoke can have some severe impacts on children. Secondhand smoke is linked to asthma in children and can trigger asthma attacks. Children who breathe secondhand smoke often show stunted lung growth and get sick more often. Parents might notice wheezing and coughing. Children may even get more ear infections.
What you can do to alleviate tobacco smoke allergies
Below are some ways to avoid or treat smoke allergy as listed by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.
1. Avoid exposure
The most direct way to not be triggered by cigarette smoke is to of course avoid it. For instance, if you know where the smoking areas of certain buildings are, you might plan your walking route accordingly to avoid those areas.
2. Use air purifiers in the home
Air purifiers remove contaminants from the air, including smoke particulates. Out of more than 50 air purifiers we have tested in the past 12 months, our top pick for cigarette smoke is the Levoit EverestAir — outstanding performance all around in a beautifully designed unit for those with $500 to spend. If you’re on a tighter budget, then you should consider the Core 300S for solid air cleaning and odor removal for small rooms of up to 219 sq. ft.
3. Try nasal rinses
You might try rinsing your nose out with a Neti pot or similar product. This can help remove any allergens you inhaled from your nasal passages.
4. Look into at-home medicines
There are also medicines you can take, like nasal corticosteroids to reduce swelling in the nose, antihistamines or decongestants, as a few examples. Talk to your doctor before starting any new medicines and find out which might be best for you.
5. Ask your doctor about immunotherapy
Some treatments with the doctor can help target the problem on an immune system level. For instance, with allergy shots, doctors give shots that have the allergen in them and increase the dose over time to make the body less sensitive to that allergen.
6. Serious cases might require an epi-pen
In worst cases, an allergy can cause life-threatening reactions called anaphylaxis. If you have a severe allergy to tobacco, carry an epinephrine pen to administer in an emergency and then call 911.
The only way to know for sure if you are allergic to cigarette smoke is to get an allergy test. Talk to your primary care doctor about testing for a tobacco or cigarette smoke allergy. They might recommend running a whole panel for a complete allergy test to rule out any other causes.
The test is performed by doing a small injection of the allergen on your forearm to see if it causes a reaction in the skin. Sometimes the test involves putting the allergens on an adhesive patch that you leave on for a couple of days.
The long and short is that, yes, you can have an allergy to tobacco smoke.
Some studies suggest allergic reactivity to tobacco. Others show that cigarette smoke can make already present allergy symptoms worse. It’s also possible that you may just be sensitive to cigarette smoke and it causes you to have non-allergic rhinitis that causes the characteristic stuffiness, runny nose and sneezing.
The only way to know for sure if it is an allergy is to have an allergy test performed by a doctor. Whether you’re sensitive to smoke or allergic to it, you have a number of options for clearing up the symptoms, from avoiding the smoke to air purifiers for removing smoke from your home to nasal rinses to medical treatments.
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. (2017). Tobacco Smoke. aafa.org
- Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. (2018). Allergy Treatments. aafa.org
- European Respiratory Journal. (2011). Passive smoking may influence respiratory allergic reaction. erj.ersjournals.com
- Frontiers. (2020). Effects of Cigarette Smoke on the Nasal Respiratory and Olfactory Mucosa in Allergic Rhinitis Mice. frontiersin.org
- Healthcare. (2023). The Association of Smoking with Contact Dermatitis: A Cross-Sectional Study. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
- JAMA. (1933). Tobacco Allergy. jamanetwork.com
- Johns Hopkins Medicine. What is rhinitis? hopkinsmedicine.org
- Mayo Clinic. (2023). Nonallergic Rhinitis. mayoclinic.org
- Mayo Clinic. (2022). Allergy Skin Tests. mayoclinic.org
- National Library of Medicine. (2006). The Health Consequences of Involuntary Exposure to Tobacco Smoke: A Report of the Surgeon General. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
- PLoS One. (2015). Allergic Sensitization, Rhinitis and Tobacco Smoke Exposure in US Adults. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov