Incense, Asthma, and Allergies

Close-Up Of Incense Burning In Temple
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Incense plays a major role in many Pagan rituals, spellwork, circles, and cleansing procedures. What happens if you're trying to perform such activities but you've got allergies or asthma? After all, few things are as distracting as trying to concentrate on a magical task and then having it interrupted because you can't breathe, or you're coughing and 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.

How to Deal With Incense

If you have asthma or other breathing issues, consider avoiding commercial incense altogether, and substituting it with loose grain incense. You can mix this with water, put it in a small bowl, and heat it up over a tealight burner. This will produce the scent without the smoke. Another option is to place frankincense crystals or other resins in a pie tin, add a bit of water, and then places the tin on top of a heat source. You'll be able to smell it all over your home, and there's no burning charcoal or smoke to cause your asthma to flare up. If you're using incense to represent the element of air, consider using some other symbolic item, such as feathers, in its place.

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 are 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 syndromes, in which various symptoms are believed to stem from chemical exposures in the environment–incense, perfume, fragrant candles, even laundry detergent.

In addition, there are other health conditions that can be exacerbated by prolonged exposure to the smoke or fragrance of incense. Some people experience skin irritation, and others have reported an increase in neurological problems such as headaches, forgetfulness, or difficulty concentrating.

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 the 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.

If you're someone who's leading or hosting a ritual or ceremony, and you've got new people coming along as guests, be a courteous host and ask if there are any medical issues related to incense exposure that you need to be aware of. This way, you can make accommodations ahead of time, and you won't have to worry about someone becoming ill during your ritual or other events.

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Your Citation
Wigington, Patti. "Incense, Asthma, and Allergies." Learn Religions, Sep. 10, 2021, Wigington, Patti. (2021, September 10). Incense, Asthma, and Allergies. Retrieved from Wigington, Patti. "Incense, Asthma, and Allergies." Learn Religions. (accessed March 27, 2023).