Can Scented Candles Cause Sinus Problems?

Correction 11/02/22: A previous version of this article omitted the possibility of aromatherapy candles causing sinus problems. We've added that a small number of people may still experience a reaction from such candles.

Situated midway between your eyes and nose are four pairs of cavities known as your sinuses, reports the Mayo Clinic Health System. Filled with air, our sinuses aid in the production and circulation of mucus. When our sinuses are exposed to elements from the outside world by way of our nasal passages, irritants like viruses, fungi particles, bacteria, and more can prompt symptoms of inflammation, pain, congestion, postnasal drip, and facial swelling. 

While viruses, bacteria, and fungi can wreak havoc on our sinuses, can other environmental irritants give us sinus problems too — specifically scented candles? "Scented candles and aerosols release something called fine particulate matter into the air," says Dr. Tania Elliott, a board-certified allergist and immunologist at NYU School of Medicine, to SheKnows. "These are teeny-tiny particles that can irritate your nasal passages and your lungs and act just like allergens like pollen and dust do. It can cause congestion, cough, sneezing, post nasal drip, and even asthma attacks." So while it appears that scented candles can evoke symptoms of an allergic response, can they also prompt a case of sinusitis?

How to tell the difference between sinusitis and allergies

Otherwise known as a sinus infection, nearly 29 million adults in the U.S. are diagnosed with sinusitis yearly, reports the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). As per the Mayo Clinic Health System, the condition is characterized by tissue swelling and inflammation. This can lead to drainage issues, congestion, mucus accumulation, breathing difficulty, and eye pain or pressure.

Allergist Dr. Stanley Fineman tells NPR that he often sees patients come in with congestion, sinus pressure, or headaches in relation to scented products. However, experts at the Detroit Sinus Center say that although it is possible for the chemicals from a scented candle to cause a sinus infection, more often than not, a case of sinusitis is the product of a viral infection.

While sinus infections and allergies can present with similar symptoms, the difference is that a sinus infection will be accompanied by thick, dark mucus and ongoing swelling. Without that, your sweet-smelling candle is probably prompting allergy symptoms instead. If so, over-the-counter medications can help provide relief. In the event that you experience ongoing facial pain, congestion, or develop a fever or nasal discharge that appears odd in color, be sure to consult with your physician. Additionally, you could try subbing aromatherapy candles or beeswax candles in place of a synthetically scented one, as these are typically derived from plants in nature. However, aromatherapy may still cause an allergic reaction in a small number of people (via Johns Hopkins Medicine).