I’m allergic to my new office!

A reader writes:

I recently started a new job, which is going great so far. I love the work that I’m doing, my boss, and my coworkers. What I don’t love so much, however, is that I seem to be very, very allergic to something in the office. I’ve never really had allergies before, but the second I sit down at my desk I am a sneezing, coughing, eyes-watering mess. This lasts until about fifteen minutes after I leave the office at night. I have all sorts of allergy medicines stored in my desk, but none of them seem to work very well. I would ask to be moved (I’m sitting directly underneath a vent) but we’re filled pretty much to capacity and there are already people sharing desks. Besides, I don’t think that the allergen is confined to my area.

I’m afraid that this is starting to affect my work since being uncomfortably congested is definitely a distraction, and since I’m in a cubicle, I’m worried that I’m distracting and annoying those that sit around me (although no one has said anything except “bless you!”)

Any suggestions on what to do? I don’t want to sound whiny and entitled, especially since it is a new job, but I also want to work at my best which is hard when I have severe sneezing attacks every few minutes.

Oh no!  Well, start by talking to your manager, even if you think there’s nothing she can do about it. Chances are good that she’ll be willing to swap your desk with someone else’s to see if that solves it.

Say something like this: “I think I’m allergic to something near my desk. I’ve never had allergies before, but since I started, I’ve been sneezing and coughing as soon as I sit down, and it goes away once I leave for the night. I’ve tried allergy drugs, but they’re not solving it. I’ve started to wonder whether being under the vent might be causing it, and so I wanted to ask you about the possibility of swapping desk locations with someone.”

And don’t worry about about sounding whiny or entitled!  If your manager is a halfway decent manager, she’d very much want to know about it. I’d be mortified to discover that my new employee had been suffering silently through something like this (or a freezing draft or a lack of AC or a broken chair or whatever else might make someone really uncomfortable).

One other thought: You mention that you’ve never had allergies before, but I wonder if you might be reacting to someone’s perfume. Any heavy perfume-wearers nearby?

What other suggestions do people have?

P.S. Someone mentioned in the comments recently that they don’t like it when I end posts by asking what advice others have … but I’m going to keep doing it because there are plenty of topics where I don’t have the market cornered on the answer. Like that recent post on bedbugs, where I had no idea what I was talking about. Plus, I love reading comments; they’re the best motivator for me to keep writing posts!

{ 48 comments… read them below }

  1. Heather*

    I am scent-sensitive and I agree with the perfume suggestion…or maybe they need to replace their air filter if you are sitting beneath a vent. Sometimes people who use perfumey laundry detergent/fabric softener or scented personal care products (deodorant, scented maxi’s, etc) can bother me as well. Good luck and I hope the allergies resolve soon!

    1. Angela C.*

      Scented Maxi’s. Come on, get real.

      I truly hope your sense of smell is not that developed.

  2. Anonymous*

    I, too, have never had bad allergies until this year; after working outside for a whole afternoon, I had a major allergy attack that lasted for a few days. So you can develop allergies.

    I’m concerned that she’s sitting under her desk. With air conditioning on all day, who knows what’s being kicked through the ventilation system in the office.

    1. Anonymous*

      Was I not thinking when I wrote that? She’s sitting under a vent, not her desk.

      Meanwhile I wanted to add, that while I don’t think this is the case, it just reminds me of Legionnaires disease. That has more to do with pneumonia and bacteria in the air (sometimes spread around by air conditioning). In any case, I think the OP should discuss this matter with her boss and ask for the vent to be cleaned. For all we know, her body might be picking up a nasty mold in the air that she’s sensitive to and is unknowningly hurting everyone else.

  3. Liza*

    Absolutely, the manager needs to know. Allergies affect health and performance and the manager needs to be know that something is going on. Suggesting to swap places is a good start, but as Anonymous suggested, the vent could be the issue. If another person develops issues, then it’s clearly a building maintenance problem.

    As for ending your posts with asking for advice, Alison, please keep doing it. I love it! There is no way you can be an expert in everything. Plus, there are plenty of other managers and experienced professionals who read your blog (like myself) and encouraging us to share our experiences is a great way to engage us.

  4. Julie*

    Sometimes people bring air freshener or scented sprays into the office, which is a huge trigger for me. You may want to look into a small HEPA filter. I have one in my office and it makes a world of difference.

    1. DMD*

      I am very, very scent-sensitive and really hesitated to talk to my boss about this same problem, but he and HR were wonderful about it. (I was particularly embarrassed because the strongest reactions I had was to one of the HR ladies’ perfume! It was actually a great scent, but I would get an instantaneous pounding headache and itchy eyes/nose/throat. I could sense when she was on the same *floor* even if I hadn’t heard her voice.) They helped me change desks, and got me an air filter. It wasn’t perfect but it was a vast improvement. It’s sad because still a lot of people don’t believe I could be so sensitive, but believe me I didn’t want to! And I would like to wear scented things occasionally, myself, but no can do.

      All that said, dear OP, it’s just important to clear up communication with your boss. Explain the problem, and propose a solution. It’ll serve you well in fixing the allergy problem initially, and in showing your commitment to workplace integrity and a focus on contributing to the whole. How you conduct your personal life around office people is a huge tell when it comes to advancement, and it’s impossible to keep them completely separate. So, show how you tackle a problem and make the situations win-win!

      1. KD*

        I am so glad to see this post. I thought I was going crazy. I do have asthma, and allergies (since moving to Texas), but the past few years, I think I have Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. Strong (scented products from deodorant, laundry detergent, plugins, even fresh cut flowers) have affected me greatly.

        I work in a cubicle environment. I have asked to be moved, I’ve asked co-workers as politely as I can to let me know before they spray something, or if they’re wearing scented products, if we can talk on the phone versus in-person meetings. But most are “hostile” about it.

        I brought it up to my boss a few times over the years, the last time was in 2009 , she says there’s nothing she can do about the seating arrangements. I wear a mask at my desk. It’s been an uncomfortable few years. I too never wanted to appear entitled, or a whiny, and honestly some people have no sympathy unless it’s a visible physical ailment.

        Do I go to a regular allergist for chemical sensitivity testing? Allergy shots were suggested for my allergies, but I wasn’t sure if that would cure the “chemical” sensitivity situation. I’m investing in an air purifier for work now, but don’t’ know what else to do besides find a career where I can work from home.

        All I can do is send out resumes, network, and develop skills/education, follow up until the right opportunity comes. It’s just good to see that other people (more than just a small dollop) have this problem.

        1. KMD*

          I was laughed off and at by my coworkers when I had an asthma attack triggered by perfume, not once but 3 times. Even the plant manager and my supervisor. They smelled nothing. There are a few other people who “don’t like’ the perfume and say it is offensive, but won’t speak up. I live in a small town and there aren’t many jobs around.

  5. Allergic*

    I am going a different way, I think it is possibly mold in the air ducts. I see sick building syndrome as the culprit.

  6. Anonymous*

    It’s also possible they may be pumping some sort of scent into the office via the vent. Some places have started to do this, believing that scent x makes employees work harder or scent y makes clients spend more. If this is the culprit, there may not be much that can be done.

  7. Melissa*

    I have to agree with Allergic! Back in the late 80’s I worked as an office manager for a CPA firm for two years. I was sick all the time. Constantly! And it wasn’t just me — there were at least two other staff members and three CPAs that also got sick. I eventually left the job and moved on, but kept in touch with my old boss. Two years later, he moved his practice out of that building and into a new space. I stopped by to visit and he told me that after he’d moved out of the old building, contractors had torn out the drywall and found everything COVERED with mold! No wonder half his staff was sick all the time!

    1. Kelly*

      I have to second that suggestion. My aunt works as an office worker at a large corporate nursing home. She started a little over a decade ago and shortly after she started, she came down with a mysterious cough. It progressed to where her immune system because severely compromised and for several years she never attended any family events because her compromised immune system couldn’t handle being around sick adults and kids. Other people started suffering similar symptoms and their employer did some testing. Turns out it was mold growing in an older building. They completely gutted the building, including putting in new ducts, new walls – the whole nine yards. Now very few people are complaining about being sick.

  8. Sarah E. Welch*

    I completely agree. If your new boss isn’t concerned about this, you will have a clue to bigger issues! I ran into a similar issue a few years ago, and my company tested for mold, mildew, etc. They ended up buying air filters for everyone in the office. It helped a lot!

    Good luck! :)

  9. Clobbered*

    If you haven’t had allergies before, it might not be obvious to you how allergy meds work. Generally they work by building a resistance – they are not like headache pills which you take only when you have a headache. For example if you take something like loratadine (brand name Claritin), you need to take it every day (including weekends) and prior to exposure (so when you wake up in the morning, not when you get to the office). This isn’t medical advice, but it is my experience. Modern antihistamines don’t really have side effects so it is perfectly fine to do this.

    Obviously talk to your manager, but if there is no solution try following my suggestion for a couple of weeks.

    1. Idgie5*

      I really need to note that allergy medicines like claritin, zyrtec and benadryl – are antihistamines. All that they do is block the allergic response of inflammation. They absolutely do not build a resistance. I don’t think any allergy medicine out there does build a resistance. When your body comes in contact with a foreign substance that it does not like, it responds to the foreign substance with inflammation in order to get that foreign substance out. The antihistamines block your body from responding this way to these foreign substance.

      The only treatment that I know of that actually builds a resistance is immunotherapy – which can be in the form of allergy shots or in the form of antigens taken orally every day. After you are allergy tested at your doctor’s office, the doctor might recommend allergy shots or antigens taken orally at a strength that is appropriate for you. Your body is subjected to the allergic substance every day on a small level so that it can build up it’s immunity to it.

  10. Ruby*

    I don’t have any unique advice, but would agree with the suggestion that it may be a reaction to someone’s perfume, and that a personal HEPA filter may be of use (in addition to relocating desks).
    However, I thought I’d add my comment because I would hate to see the posts dry up, Alison! ;)

  11. tami*

    i think you should go get tested for allergies before you speak with your manager so you can narrow down what might be causing your reaction. allergies can develop at any time during your life. for instance, as a kid i wasn’t allergic to anything but ragweed. when i was about 22 years old i was suddenly allergic to cats (my cats!), dogs, all sorts of tree pollen, grasses, mold, mites, etc… i was surprised, but once it was diagnosed we were able to treat it.

  12. Dawn*

    I agree that it could be the quality of the air coming through the vents. With a multi-tenant, multi-floor building, there could be all kinds of things being carried all over the building via the vents. My co-worker had that issue. He was a sneezing, nose-running, mess until he moved to another desk that wasn’t directly under the vent. He got better once he did that.

  13. Kathy*

    I’d be curious to know if any of your coworkers seem to have similar symptoms or are suffering similarly. If some coworkers feel the same way, that might give you a clue as to what’s causing it (someone or something in the building).

    PS – AAM – You should totally keep asking questions to end your posts! I LOVE reading the comments and conversations. It makes your website a rich learning community.

  14. Jamie*

    One of my sons had this problem when he was in school – I was getting calls daily because he was so sick and by the time we got home he’d be fine.

    Turns out he had a severe allergy to mold so he was showing symptoms first. Once other people were getting sick also they found a huge mold colony in the ventilation system.

    I wonder if anyone else in your office is showing symptoms and might not equate it with the air in your office – headaches, sinus issues, etc.

    Sitting right under the vent as you do, I would check and see if perhaps your symptoms are less when away from your desk?

    It could be anything, including any of the other triggers mentioned, but mold is something you may not know you’re allergic to if you’ve never been exposed before. Just a thought.

  15. Liz in a library*

    I have been in the exact same situation, except that I knew I was *highly* allergic to mold when I started working here. There was visible black crud being shot out of our air conditioning system.

    Since you sit directly underneath the vent, I wonder if you could request to have that vent cleaned? I know here, we needed the entire duct system cleaned, but there were multiple people getting sick from it.

  16. Interviewer*

    I once worked in a 30+ year old high rise building with air conditioners/vents around the exterior walls of each office. One day our all-around office handy guy took it upon himself to figure out why he sneezed every time he came to work in the morning, and took the covers off the HVAC unit in his office. It was completely covered in a 2-inch layer of dust and lint. He spent the next week going to each office with a shop vac, dismantling our units, and vacuuming the interior. Made everyone a lot happier.

  17. Dawn*

    If it is the vent causing your issues and moving your desk isn’t an option, you can always use something to cover the vent. My co-worker did that to the vent over her desk. She just taped some cardboard over it. Not the ideal situation, but it helped.

  18. Natalie*

    From the commercial landlord perspective:

    There are a lot of things that could be being carried through the HVAC system. Other people have mentioned mold and dust already, but it’s also possible that the fresh air intake is located near something you’re allergic to. These might be fixable with a simple filter change, or upgrading the filters to a finer mesh.

    Some other possibilities include cleaning products (you’ll need to check with the cleaning contractor) and the furniture itself, particularly your chair. (I’m assuming you didn’t get a brand new chair.)

  19. Anonymous*

    Regarding comments, and asking for them or not: Why would anyone complain about that? It’s not like you’re getting paid by your readers to be The Shell Answer Woman, and so if you ask for our input you’re skating on our expertise, or lack thereof.

    Besides, I’ve noticed that everyone feels free to put their own two cents in whether you ask for comments or not. Six of one, half a dozen of another…

    I like a nice feisty thread! More comments for everyone!

  20. Evan Silberman*

    I had this experience with one of my employees, and he directed his concern to me. I directed it to our HR department who in turn had someone investigate the air quality in the office. The end result was our maintenance group installing filters in the air vents in the office. There are regulations, etc. that OSHA established for air quality. Big companies usually have one or two people dedicated to health and safety issues. So my advice is talk to your manager and/or HR. You may also want to see an allergist to rule out possible causes, or to narrow down the root cause.

  21. Anonymous*

    I agree with most people above: Do bring it to the attention of the boss and ask if OP can move desks and whether they can have the A/c serviced to rule out dust/mold or any other A/c related issue. Its not a bad thing to do and any manager who has an issue with OP raising needs a kick.

    I would also seek an allergy test but don’t necessarily expect it to come up with anything. I have allergies to some strong perfumes and dairy and they didn’t show up on the tests but I have confirmed by trial and error they are the causes.

    Oh, and AAM… keep asking :) You can’t know everything and people who have faced the situation can have helpful advice.

    1. fposte*

      People can have very strong sensitivities that aren’t technically allergies, too. So there can be substances you’re uncomfortable being exposed to (think medication that makes you nauseated) that doesn’t classify as an allergy.

  22. Phyr*

    I’ve had to deal with something like this. It could be the air system and that is extremely expensive to clean, most companies don’t seem to do this.

    If the OP has not tried allergy shots then she might want to if talking with their manager doesn’t work. Other then that just keep trying different methods to control it.

  23. Sarah G*

    I respectfully disagree with Clobbered about allergy meds. I’ve suffered allergies all my life (hay fever, cats, etc) and have always taken allergy meds occasionally on an as-needed basis, and they’re very effective when I take them. This includes claritin, zyrtec, benadryl, etc. Even when I’m having a horrible allergy attack, they work wonders, it just takes 30 min or so before the medication starts to take effect.

    I’ve heard that allergy shots work by building a resistance, but I don’t have experience with that. Anyway, medicating yourself is hopefully not the solution here. Best of luck, and please follow up and keep us posted!

  24. Susan E*

    Just want to put in a good word for questions and an expert who’s willing to ask them. I would get a lot from just reading the blog but when there’s a good discussion in the comments, it’s the icing on the cake

  25. Rachel*

    Definitely inquire about the vents. What about new construction? Carpets, glues, etc can wreak havoc on more sensitive people. Cleaning supplies? My former cube mate used a disinfectant spray that me sneeze and eyes water.

    Go to a doctor/allergy specialist ASAP: a simple test can help you to narrow possible causes a lot more quickly than testing on your own.

    You’re definitely not alone.

  26. Migraineur*

    It’s interesting that this post is so recent. I immediately thought of it when I encountered my own problem at work today. I was diagnosed with chronic daily migraine headaches over 10 years ago. I have a migraine every day but 80% of the time it is a 1-3 on a scale of 1-10, 10% of the time it’s a 5 or 6 which kills but I still make a point to get myself to work because I value my job. Today, I discovered my office had new lights installed in the hallway from the elevators to the door to the area in which I work. They’re LED which is good for the environment but the devil for me. I spent probably 4 seconds in the hallway and the light spectrum they give off and the buzz associated with then immediately took my head pain from a 5 to a 10. I couldn’t go home though because I couldn’t get to the elevators without walking through the hallway and aggravating my head more. I told my boss and he said that he didn’t think there was anything they could do and I should take the back stair case and go home. It took me a half hour to get down the 10 flights of stairs because physical exertion makes migraines worse. I’ll no longer be able to come to work with a 5 or 6 migraine anymore.

    That’s a lot of background, but because my condition is covered by the FMLA I am wondering if they are required to work with me on the situation because it’s truly an accessibility issue. Or because the newly installed lights arent the only lights in the hallway (theyre spotlights for the artwork on the walls) they should just turn them off. But I’ve learned a lot of things people think are illegal in the work place really aren’t and I’m worried that may be the case here and imm screwed.

    Any insight?

    1. Sarah E. Welch*

      Migraineur: I don’t know about LED lights, but CFLs are known to be a trigger for migraines. We tried to use them at home for about two years (before we knew about the trigger). During that time, my husband had quite a few migraines that were bad enough that he vomited. Once we switched them out back to standard light bulbs (and now a few halogen in our new place), he’s only had a couple of migraines with much lower intensity.

      I very much doubt that your company will make any changes with regard to this, as these lights would be considered necessary for safety. And changing them to something you can tolerate wouldn’t get them the incentives for being ‘green’. Since it’s not in your work area, you’re probably out of luck–although I’d give it a shot.

      Do sunglasses help at all? Could you wear them through that area until you’ve cleared it?

      Good luck!

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      I’m not a lawyer, but if your condition is covered under the ADA, they probably do need to make this accommodation for you.

      However, I’d start with just talking to your manager about it, person-to-person. If your manager is a nice person, she’ll probably want to try to help you, regardless of the law.

      (And people are often way more interested in trying to help people when no one is invoking the law. Not always, but often.)

    3. mortorph*

      Its probably not the light spectrum, but flickering. LED lights cycle and flicker based on voltage. This flickering isn’t normally visible to the human eye – but your brain might be picking up on it. Try it out – next time you have an led light, swish it through the air at varying speeds, and you should see the light start to blink (think old pencil in front of the television trick).

  27. Jamie*

    As a lifelong migraine sufferer – thankfully not daily – I strongly suggest you see an optometrist to see if there is a lens coating for glasses that could help.

    Certain kinds of lighting can be a huge trigger for some people (fluorescent for me) and there’s a kind of anti-glare coating on my glasses that helps.

    My sister didn’t even need glasses and the optometrist set her up with the same, so she could deal with the lighting at work.

    Just a thought.

  28. Ricci*

    I have been at my job almost 5 months and love it. I get along with everyone, except I do believe on of my female coworkers does not care for me. She sometimes thinks she is the boss and likes to tell people what to do. She also interrupts me all the time when I am talking to someone, etc.. Just the other day she complimented me on my perfume and told me how much she liked it. (I wear light perfume every day)She was standing over me at my desk when she said this.
    I jokingly commented that I was glad I did not stink or that it did not bother her. She said NO. Well, later in the day I get a call from
    my boss to see him in his office. He told me someone had complained about my perfume and that they were so sick they almost had to leave work. I automatically knew who it was and asked him if I was correct and he said yes. All of a sudden after working there 5 months, my perfume is making her sick. I do not wear the same scent every day. So, he asked that I not wear any perfume He told me he knows how this woman can be and that she likes to be in control. What would you do? I’m fairly new and don’t want to get in trouble. I addressed this with a few of my other female coworkers and they said they can never smell my perfume.
    They could not believe this woman would compliment me and then stab me in the back.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      This woman sounds ridiculous, but I’d stop wearing the perfume to work, because you don’t want to turn this into a big battle. Some people do have fragrance sensitivity, although who knows if that’s what’s going on with her or not.

      1. Ricci*

        Thanks for your advice. I will not be wearing perfume to work anymore. I had a nice talk with my boss today and he again re-iterated that he knows how this woman can be. He also said that if she gives me any problems to let him know. I think she is just trying to “get to me”, but I will be the bigger person and comply with her wishes. It’s just so funny that she compliments me on my perfume (very light scent of body splash to be exact) and then goes and reports me. If she has such severe allergies (which I don’t think is the case) she wouldn’t be able to last working with me for five months if my perfume had been bothering her that long. She would have said something way before then. I know she is just trying to get to me for whatever reason. As I mentioned, I was told she likes to control people. It’s also very funny because her male co-worker who she works side by side with wears after shave to work every day and yet that does not seem to bother her. Go figure!!! I had a great day today because she actually had the day off. Thank you again!!

    2. Scent Free*

      Most offices are now scent free. That solves a lot of problems. But the fact is your co-worker was being petty. In any case, whenever you have something like this happening in an office, you should always go directly to the source of the complaint and not talk about it with other co-workers (which just stirs up trouble) and creates an uncomfortable atmosphere in the office. There is also such a thing as “personal space” and you may like to claim it. If someone can smell light perfume on you, they are probably closer to you than normal, and for that reason you should wear a light perfume.

  29. Ann-Marie*

    I too have moved to a brand new office building in the last 5 months. Before we moved in we had a guided tour and as soon as I entered the building my eyes started itching and streaming. Within 2 hours I could barely see through the left eye, it was so swollen it looked like I had been in a fight! As builders were still in the building I put it down to plaster dust getting in my eye. Since working there my eyes have not been right. I have visited my GP 4 times, the optician twice and last week in desparation I attended my local hospital walk in eye clinic. The diagnosis is extremely dry eyes. Several prescriptions of ointments and drops has not cured it – the only cure seems to be stay at home !! The office windows do not open, we have to rely on air conditioning to keep the room cool. When the air conditioning is off, it resembles sitting in a greenhouse so we prefer it on. There are lots of vents in the office; my optician said that it doesnt matter whether you sit under a vent or not, if you are sensitive to air conditioning you only need to be in the room to be affected. When I left work yesterday I was extremely uncomfortable. My left eye had streamed all day and was very painful. I’m on leave today – eyes are perfectly normal. I’d be interested to hear if there are any tests I could have to find out exactly what the problem is and any suggestions would be welcome – many thanks.

  30. Hedgewitch*

    Hi,
    I have just found this blog after a particularly annoying incident with a memeber of my staff. He randomly asked me today if I had cats, I said Yes, why? He relied ‘huh, thought so….everytime I am near you, look what you do to me…my nose runs, my eyes stream’. Now, I have worked with him for 2 years & he has never complained of these symtoms before. My work clothes are laundered regularly & have minimal contact with my cats. I am really annoyed as to me, he seemed to be suggesting that I wasn’t as clean as I should be..(which is rich, if you were to see him…I have sometimes wondered if he has an allergy to soap…..). Surely, if he has an allergy, it’s his responsibility to deal with it, right? Aside from keeping my work clothes as ‘cat free’ as possible, what else can I be expected to do??? De-contaminate everytime I walk into the workplace???

  31. Concerned Sneezer*

    I have the same thing happening to me at home – 15 sneezes just now, and so does my dad. There is something more going on than vents because so many people have this problem. I think a government study should be commissioned.
    I’ve heard that often we sit at a computer and forget to blink too. After a few years of not blinking, your eyes are shot.

  32. Anonymous*

    I have a chronic cough at work and it’s only at work. Hostile employees complain about my cough – I would like nothing more than not to cough. Not sure what to do – been to doctors/specialists and it’s something at work that’s causing it. I am under a vent – but mgrs. no receptive to my issues.

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