Airborne Anaphylaxis: My Son’s Fragrance Battle

in Fragrance, Managing Allergies, Your Stories
Rosa Silk with her son, Brandon

Airborne Anaphylaxis: My Son’s Fragrance Battle
Rosa Silk with her son, Brandon

I am a proud mother to three wonderful, now-grown children. The youngest of the three, Brandon, has an unusual medical condition that, sadly, has greatly affected his life. He has a severe, life-threatening allergy to the chemicals (fragrance) used in Axe Body Spray.

At least today we know the culprit behind Brandon’s reactions. But it was back in 5th grade when he started to get sick at school. At first, it was headaches, but then he started getting hives, and even had trouble breathing. I attributed this to growing pains, until one dreadful day when he went into anaphylactic shock. We were rudely awakened to the fact that there was something seriously wrong.

Brandon spent days in the hospital as doctors tried to figure out what caused the reaction. No one knew. They asked so many questions – and eventually came to the conclusion that it was something airborne that he must have been exposed to.

Learning this, I had many questions for the school: did they spray something, exterminate or paint? Had something gone on in the school that day that was different from any other day? I wanted to know anything that could help us find out what was going on. My questions went on and on, but there was no answer.

I did not want my son to be exposed again to something that could risk his life. I was at my wits’ end but, at the same time, hoped it was just some sort of fluke.

Fragrance Battle: Finding the Trigger

As Brandon continued in middle school and then high school (which were in different buildings), we noticed a pattern. He was fine at home. But every time he went to school he would get sick with headaches, trouble breathing, and then welts on his face and arms, blurred vision and stomach pains. His health became unbearable, to the point that he had to be kept at home for weeks at a time before attempting to go back to school.

When he would return to school, the nurse’s office became part of Brandon’s day. It escalated to the point that he had several bad reactions, where he felt like he could not breathe. Each time the school nurse had to administer an epinephrine auto-injector before he was taken by ambulance to the hospital. His reactions to these still-unknown chemicals were becoming more severe.

Years were passing, and we still could not figure out what was happening. By a small miracle, during middle school Brandon was able to correlate a scent in the hall to his reactions. He asked the students what the scent was – and that’s where our journey began. A challenge test done at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia later confirmed the reactions were being triggered by an ingredient in Axe Body Spray.

I reached out to everyone I could, including top-notch experts, hospitals, medical specialists in the field. Their only help and advice was avoidance of Brandon’s trigger, Axe Body Spray. But this happens to be a very popular product among teenage boys. My son couldn’t avoid something in the air around him.

The worst part was that for years I was not allowed by law to know what chemicals my son was being exposed to. The ingredients were considered “proprietary” to the manufacturer. Commercial interests took precedence over my child’s health. At the end of 2018, manufacturer Unilever finally committed to disclosing ingredients across its personal care and beauty products.

But during our school fragrance battle a few years earlier, Brandon’s doctors all had to sign a medical gag order just to know the chemical ingredients. They needed them to figure out what triggered anaphylaxis in my son.

Robbed of Health at School

Why should a child, or anyone, ever have to go through this? These fragranced products can be environmental and occupational hazards. Our kids are not working at a manufacturing plant; they are simply going to school.

I also pressed politicians to help me. A few years ago, we got a bill to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, called the Fragrance Free Schools Act. It seemed an exciting step in the right direction, but the bill never passed. What will it take to protect students who are like my son?

He has graduated now, but for years Brandon switched between homeschooling and attending school. Ultimately, he had to go to full-time homeschooling because doctors said the chemicals at school were too dangerous for him. The allergy became that severe. The school tried to plead with the student population to refrain from wearing Axe at school, but it didn’t work.

School was supposed to give my son the freedom to learn and explore, but instead, it robbed him of his health.

We all need to stop and think about the air our children are breathing at school, where they spend the majority of their day. We need to truly think about fragrance-free schools. This would protect children from harmful chemicals that so innocently hide behind the catchall word “fragrance”.

Contributor Rosa Silk lives in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Article updated January 2024.

Related Reading:
Perfume Allergy and the Battle over Scent Ingredient Labeling
Fragrance Sensitivity: Hard to Breathe, Tough to Touch