Spring blooms bring joy after a long winter. But they can also bring sneezing fits, itchy eyes and runny noses.
You might experience allergy-like symptoms when you pick peonies from your backyard or grab a farmhouse bouquet from the grocery store — but don’t expect the antihistamines that stave off your tree-pollen allergies to banish a flower-related runny nose.
According to Mark Moss, an allergist at UW Health in Madison, Wisconsin, people commonly mistake irritation from flowers as a pollen allergy. But the two aren’t actually related. An allergic reaction requires a trigger — in this case, pollen — to land in and irritate a person’s nose, eyes or lungs. “Pollen from flowers is too heavy to blow in the air, so it doesn’t end up depositing in those places, unlike tree pollen, grasses and weeds, all of which release microscopic pollen grains in the air,” Moss says.
What’s actually irritating you is probably the flower’s fragrance, which Moss says is made up of small airborne particles released from the flower. These microscopic compounds can cause allergy-adjacent symptoms, including sneezing, runny nose, congestion, headache, trouble concentrating and exacerbated asthma symptoms. The response is called nonallergic vasomotor rhinitis, and you’re more likely to experience it with floral fragrance if you’re also sensitive to other smells, such as perfumes, detergents or candles.
Emily Pinon, an event planner and creative director for florist Ode à La Rose, says fragrance comes up commonly in planning events and weddings. Hosts consult with her to avoid causing widespread sneezing. “Not all flowers are created equal,” she says. “The ones with the stronger odors are usually the ones that cause symptoms.”
Lilies are among the worst offenders. Pinon says Stargazer and Casablanca lilies, along with lily of the valley, can be especially irritating, given their strong, perfume-like scent. Christina Stembel, founder and chief executive of Farmgirl Flowers, suggests Asiatic or Oriental lilies as a replacement. They won’t last as long, and they’re about a third of the size, but they’re less likely to trigger symptoms.
Other perfumey flowers, including hyacinth, jasmine, gardenia, tuberose, paperwhite and lilac, are also more likely to irritate sensitive noses. As for roses, people often think they’re reacting to them, but Stembel says it’s usually baby’s breath — a common filler in rose bouquets — that causes rhinitis. Pinon says she steers clear of dahlias, daisies and asters for fragrance-sensitive people, too.
And a flower doesn’t have to smell good to bother you. “Many just smell like grass or earth, but they still have the particles that could irritate you,” Stembel says. For example, chamomile smells earthy, but it’s one of the most common irritants; carnations smell more musky, but they can also cause problems for sensitive individuals.
The safest options are flowers that don’t smell much at all. Stembel suggests tulips, hydrangeas and orchids. Irises don’t generally cause rhinitis symptoms, either; for a special touch, Stembel recommends rarer varieties of bearded irises. And although bright yellow flowers typically come with a strong scent, she says daffodils are a safe bet.
If you’re already experiencing a runny nose or sneezing from fresh flowers, Moss suggests trying an over-the-counter nasal spray, such as Flonase or Rhinocort; antihistamines, such as Benadryl, won’t work when an allergic response isn’t at play. “Allergy medication ads often show flowers blooming, which is visually eye-catching but not scientifically sound,” he says.
Stembel also has a few tricks for preventing symptoms. First, avoid placing flowers in small, unventilated rooms, and don’t keep them in your bedroom. If you want to display flowers that have a strong odor, try popping them in the refrigerator for a few hours first; Stembel says the cold air can neutralize irritating odors.
Also, although it’s fun to pick flowers from your yard, some flowers are better bought commercially.
“Many flowers have been bred so much for size instead of smell,” Stembel says. For example, roses have much larger heads than they once did, but they don’t smell as strong, making store-bought stems a safer choice for fragrance-sensitive people. The same is true for peonies: They may be irritating from your backyard bush, but probably not from the store.
And if you’ve received a mixed bouquet, it’s as simple as knowing which flowers irritate you. Take the bothersome stems out and put them in the compost bin or, better yet, give them to a neighbor. “Your neighbor will love you for it, and you’ll get to enjoy your bouquet without irritation,” Stembel says.