What do you do if you are allergic to smoke?


By David Joel Miller

How do you work around smokers if you are allergic to smoke?

Cigarette Smoking

Cigarette Smoking
Photo courtesy of Flickr (Iqbal Osman1)

This question originally came to me as an email from a counselor who is allergic to smoke. While they love the work if it’s difficult being around people who are heavy smokers. This problem also applies to those who have allergies to perfume or other strong scents. I thought I would pass this along for whatever it is worth. If any of you out there have other ideas feel free to leave a comment or contact me.

This is an extra problem, I believe, for anyone who works in mental health or substance abuse treatment areas. The comments also apply to those who work with the homeless or in social service agencies.

Smoke also affects the family members and children of the smokers. When there are children involved we suggest that the smoker refrain from smoking not only when the children are around but also suggest that they not smoke in areas that their children will be.

See the post on Third Hand Smoke to find out more about the lingering effects of having a smoker in a room where others later go.

As an ex-smoker, this is less of an issue for me. I often do not notice the scent of smoke but others may. I am not suggesting anyone take up smoking to reduce the issues they have with being around others who smoke.

I have written previously about how tobacco (nicotine) is the drug of choice among the homeless. See: What is the Drug of choice among the homeless?

Smoking and mental illness.

Heavy smoking is common among those with serious and persistent mental illnesses, substance abusers and the homeless. Smoking is not the only reason that these clients may have a strong odor. Lack of hygiene facilities makes the problems worse and so do illnesses like depression that make it overwhelming for many people to do their activities of daily life.

The conventional wisdom used to be that smoking calmed down people with psychosis or emotional issues. So if you were trying to treat someone hearing voices or abusing street drugs, why make then give up tobacco at the same time?

Today, more and more places, treatment facilities and self-help meetings are going smokeless. What we have found is that helping people give up tobacco does not hamper their recovery from other substances and may help improve their mental health symptoms.

Increasingly stop smoking programs are finding their place in the treatment of people with mental illness and substance use disorders.

Here are some thoughts to help those of you who find yourself around smokers who are triggering your allergies.

What do you do if you are allergic to smoke?

This is a serious challenge. I would hate to think that anyone would need to give up their profession because of allergies.  This is a severe challenge for people with allergies since so many clients are heavy smokers and the smoke smell lingers long after they have put that cigarette out. Heavy smoking is common in people with psychosis, schizophrenia, substance use disorders and so on. I did have a colleague who had severe allergies and even someone wearing perfume or having flowers in their office set off their attacks.

Six suggestions for coping with smoke:

  1. See your doctor, especially an allergist. Untreated this is only likely to get worse. Taking medication may help prevent the allergies getting worse.
  2. Consider a fan or air purifier for your office
  3. Try to work in larger offices or rooms where the smell may be less overwhelming.
  4. See if you can do some distance counseling work. We have a law here (California) that helps people who are in rural areas, shut-in’s etc. see their therapist via the internet. Other professionals may be able to do more of their contacts via phone.
  5. See if you can get assigned to a school based program or work with children. Their parents may smoke but you will have less smell on your clients.
  6. See if you can work in an inpatient facility that has a no smoking policy

Not sure if those suggestions will help you but that is the ones I have thought of so far.

If any of you readers come up with any other solutions let me know.  Let’s see what blog readers can come up with.

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For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog check out my Google+ page or the Facebook author’s page, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings, and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. A list of books I have read and can recommend is over at Recommended Books  

Is being around smokers or strong odors an issue for you?

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2 thoughts on “What do you do if you are allergic to smoke?

  1. I just started a job in mental health and the smells make my nose hairs dance OMG don’t know if I’ll be able to stay long I just check patients into clinic but the smells drift into my window all day Benadryl my best friend lately

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    • Sounds like you’ve got a difficult problem. You might start by talking to your doctor about the issue. Unfortunately almost anywhere you work with the public you are likely to encounter smokers. Anywhere you work with disadvantaged, poor, or homeless populations odors will be a problem. It is possible that with enough exposure you’ll develop tolerance for the smells. Hope you find a solution that works for you. Thanks for the comment.

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