Chronic illness triggered by environment of Mass

I get fragrance migraines that impact my ability to work for days afterwards, and attending Mass consistently triggers them. What is the proper thing to do, given that I cannot attend Mass every week plus Holy Days of Obligation and also fulfill my responsibility to provide for my family?

I assume I should be seeking some sort of dispensation - is this something I would email the parish priest about? Or does this just fall under “serious reason” to miss Mass and not need further action, provided I am doing my best to attend as frequently as I can without serious consequences?

These migraines had been doing better, pre-pandemic, but now they seem to be back again and worse than before. I went grocery shopping on Saturday a week ago, wearing my fragrance-reducing mask (it blends in much better now!), and didn’t fully recover until halfway through Wednesday. I got no work done on Monday and took Tuesday off entirely; I got a bit done on Wednesday. The last time my migraines were this bad, Mass attendance triggered them even when wearing an N95 mask designed for filtering out these kinds of environmental contaminants, even when sitting in the least-seated part of the lowest fragrance local parish, even when attending at the lowest-attendance Mass they offer. Pre-medication can reduce the impact some but not much and not reliably, and the only medicine I have that works at all can worsen another health condition I have over time; this isn’t something I can medicate away.

I can schedule PTO for occasional Mass recovery, but doing this more than once every two months or so is problematic. I can use tricks like attending on 3-day-weekends to stretch my PTO a bit further. But I can’t do anything to get to the point where I’m not regularly setting myself up for some combination of presenteeism (going to work when too unhealthy to be productive) or absenteeism that will affect my ability to keep my job and be unfair to my employer while attending Mass as much as we are obligated to do.

It’s currently a moot point since we are still not having Mass due to the pandemic, locally, but I’d like to manage this situation as correctly as I can going forward, now that I understand the illness better and know that it won’t go away quickly.

Thank you for any help, support, suggestions, and prayers!

Wow, I feel for you! That is crazy, I’ve never heard of that. (We learn something new every day I guess!) I too suffer from several chronic disorders (neurological) so I can sympathize. For awhile I actually had a Eucharistic minister come to the house on Sunday mornings because I was too weak to go to Mass. Thankfully, things got a little better so I can attend for half of it. (I spend the other half of Mass out in the car praying with the Missal).

I would certainly make an appointment with your parish priest and explain this to him. I think it would be good for him to know about it. (Or if you want to you could call and explain it to him over the phone. I would rather talk in person but that’s me.) He can dispense you from the obligation if that’s what you both decide to do. You can do what I did and have someone come to the house to give you Communion (someone who doesn’t wear any fragrances of course. I’m sure your priest could explain this to the person in charge of the Eucharistic ministers.) On Sundays you could also watch a TV Mass and offer up your day/week and all your sufferings in union with the Mass. Maybe you could also attend a weekday Mass to keep yourself in the mode of actually going to Mass. There’s usually a lot less people there during the week and you might be able to avoid the odors.

Out of curiosity, how do you avoid the fragrances while at work?


Throwing some ideas out here. Are you absolutely certain they are migraines, or simply really terrible headaches? Have you tried all acceptable migraine medicines? Botox? That can be extremely effective. Have you looked into clinical trials for migraine drugs? Is there the slightest chance that it may be a psychological reaction? Aromas may be triggering something deep inside.

Since it is practically impossible to eliminate the cause, how about isolating in the mass, for example. Have you tried the chapel/crying room, or the least populated area of the building? Some parishes have headsets available so that you could participate from the hall, narthex or other acceptable location. somewhere in all of this is a solution.

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I switched jobs to an office that had fewer triggering fragrances and allowed me to WFH two days a week, when my previous job was unwilling to accommodate me and used a cleaning fluid that triggered the issue. And then reached out to HR when someone new was wearing cologne and it caused me a number of sick days.

Right now it’s easy because our office is 100% WFH due to the pandemic. Which has been wonderful. But I’m probably switching to 100% WFH even after things reopen, even if I have to switch companies. I think my current company will be okay with 100% remote employees going forward, though.

Right now “in person” is out - so I’ll have to reach out with phone or email. This priest will be unusually easy to discuss this with - he has rheumatoid arthritis, so he “gets” chronic illness (because he got a chronic illness). I just wasn’t sure if that was the right place to start.

Do you happen to know - can an EM provide the Eucharist in the form of wine? I also have celiac-like reactions to gluten (sick / malnutrition for weeks after). I have a pretty excitable immune system, in general :upside_down_face: I seem to have inherited some autoimmune-tendency genes.

I can actually meet the EM at the church, if they could allow me to receive outside - I’m in the parking lot anyways, to drive my kids to Mass with my friends. And then I read the readings and pray and make an act of spiritual communion, and instead of a homily I write in a journal I keep on my phone.

Weekday Mass doesn’t work - this church was the last one I could stand to be in, and then they started using a new air freshener. Although, I’m established enough now that maybe they’d let me buy air freshener that didn’t make me sick for them - I switched parishes because every closer church was making me sick as soon as I walked in if I wasn’t wearing a mask from various scents in the entryways. I’m actually fine with some scents, like most essential oils - I’m not sure what the chemical(s) is / are that trigger me, but it’s something very commonly covered by “fragrance” on labels. So I might be able to find something that would work for everyone.

You have a very difficult set of circumstances but I’m sure you and the priest could work something out, especially if he has a chronic illness, like you said I’m sure he would understand. I’m not sure about the wine being brought out to you but I know our parish has gluten free hosts. Maybe that would work for you?

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It can get pretty strong when they sit all around you and their perfumes compete with each other and you are in the middle. I have migraines so I feel your pain.


I actually rarely get the “headache” phase at all - the phase that stops me from working is the prodrome phase, where I can’t think clearly or focus, plus have trouble sleeping at night (as in, I fall asleep as late as 7 AM rather than my normal 11:30 pm). If I get a really bad exposure, I’ll move to a standard nausea-and-headache migraine phase after about two and a half days of symptoms. Once my brain decided an ocular migraine was okay instead of a headache - I thought I was hallucinating for twenty minutes! But fortunately, the doctors I called were able to explain what was going on and how to tell if it was a retinal detachment instead (and it wasn’t).

But, in addition to having clear migraine symptoms that fit the medical description of migraines better than the stereotypes about what migraines are like, these clearly aren’t psychological.

First, I can react to things I can’t smell. I woke up one morning with symptoms, and no clear cause. I came down and told my husband, “Look, I realize this sounds crazy, but I’m getting symptoms - are you using the natural gas to cook?” (We think I’m reacting to the mercaptan in it - I’m fine around propane). He said no, and only then did I smell a hint of natural gas. Sure enough, the knob was ajar.

Second, I won’t react to an essential oil version of a scent that smells exactly like a fragrance I do react to. I visited my sister once, and smelled lemon. I know I react to the lemon-scented cleaners, so I was very agitated and nervous, expecting symptoms to show up and us to have to leave. When I was there twenty minutes and still doing okay, I asked her about the scent. It turned out to be an essential oil diffuser.

I haven’t exhausted medical treatments, as I found a dietary treatment that worked for me for the last six months or so almost as soon as I worked out that these were migraines. Unfortunately, that treatment hasn’t been working as well lately, apparently. It’s going to be hard to get medical treatment during a pandemic, especially for a condition I was never officially diagnosed with (because I found other ways to treat it on my own), so I need to have a plan until I can get that care. I’m also really nervous about medicines and other treatments, as I have a couple of autoimmune issues and my health can be hard to get balanced again once medicines are added in. I often react to stabilizers in the medication, even if the medicine itself doesn’t cause me issues.

So, finding a doctor who can treat me, who can find a treatment plan that works not just with this issue but with the rest of my complicated health situation, and then executing that plan long enough for it to be effective may take some time.

The gluten-free hosts apparently still contain a small amount of gluten - about 200 ppm, if I recall correctly. Since it’s a small host, it’s not very much at all - but we have evidence that I react to trace amounts (a serving of 60 ppm food), and I’ve already spent so much time being sick that I’m hesitant to risk it. Gluten reactions damage the gut lining and take weeks to heal, and then additional weeks to recover from the malnutrition. I already have a lot of trouble keeping my iron levels up (possibly from prior damage), and that gets a lot harder if I get trace gluten in my diet.

Thanks, I appreciate the empathy. Honestly, if I didn’t have a family to support, I’d be inclined to switch to a part-time job that employs me Wed. - Sat. and would just deal with being sick every week. Or quit, lol, if I didn’t need any income. Between celiac and now this (which also makes Confession difficult), I often wonder if God is intentionally separating me from the normal forms of grace for some kind of strengthening of my spirit. I must admit, my trust and faith in Him is stronger now that I so often need to trust that He will not permit a sheep to be separated from the flock just because they are not well enough to travel the normal paths. I guess I’m the broken, lost one that Jesus is carrying on His shoulders :sweat_smile:

Thank you so much to everyone for being so supporting. I haven’t posted here for help earlier because I honestly expected to be called a liar, or to be told that I should attend and get sick and let my boss fire me if I had “real faith”. I’ll give Father a call on Tuesday - he’ll be busy on Sunday and I don’t want to disrupt his Memorial Day. He works hard enough as it is!

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Your condition rings many bells for me. I have a rare condition that has similar symptoms/triggers among other things, although mine will on occasion advance to anaphylaxis. I’m fortunate that I’ve learned certain people that are safe to be around and who I need to avoid, and our church is large enough with seating options where I can avoid being too near the triggering smells. That said, I’ve had to move before, stand in the narthex, even leave when I’ve felt an attack coming on. There are many Sundays I’m simply stuck at home; if you’re ill, you’re automatically dispensed.

The best advice I can offer is to talk to your pastor, your doctor, and your employer (who I hope is sympathetic) and keep working on fine tuning your situation as best you can. I’ll be praying for you. Feel free to PM me if you’d like to discuss further or commiserate. :grin:

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Anima- as a celiac and fragrance migraine sufferer I sympathize. You must do whatever you need to do to be healthy.

You say that you have not been formally diagnosed- go for the diagnosis and the medicine. I end up on prescription migraine drugs after nearly every public mass I attend because of fragrances. Sometimes it takes an caffeine, an allergy pill and painkiller before mass , and a migraine pill during mass but i get through it. I switched to an early morning quiet mass where there was no music , vibrations and nearby people to make it easier. I adjusted my diet and environment to the point where it wouldn’t be reasonable to go further and admitted I really do need a migraine drug.

My experience of the low gluten host: my body can handle it one day a week. It cannot handle it every day. So the body is still reacting to it just not enough for me to notice it at one day a week.

I’m sure they can work something out for you to receive the Blood in some way. You’re in my prayers! Let us know what your priest says!

If nothing else, this thread is a good wake-up call for us to be considerate parishioners. I use scented lotions, but there’s really no need to wear them to Mass. You’re not unique in your condition.


I’ve followed this thread with great interest. I have an extreme sensitivity to a certain type of plastic (probably some cheap Chinese stuff) and my allergic reaction gets “triggered” by, among other things, some plastic shopping bags (the gray Walmart bags make me gag!), plastic used in some storage bins and drawer units (Sterilite bad, Rubbermaid good!), and some kinds of plastic garbage bags. I can actually so much as touch some of this kind of plastic, and the chemicals leach into my fingers and I begin to taste them (the chemicals, not my fingers). It happens fast, and quite frankly, I start getting a little panicky, and I’m not one to get panicky. If someone wanted to do grave harm to me, they could simply wrap me up in this kind of plastic, and force me to breathe it. Back in Poland, in the socialist days, they manufactured some awfully cheap plastic, it stunk to high heaven, it would hit me right in the face when I smelled it, but nothing compared to this. It is my Kryptonite.

If you simply cannot go to Mass under ordinary circumstances, due to unpredictable ambient fragrances, then that’s that, you just can’t go. I doubt that a formal dispensation is needed — actually, “formal” is probably not the word, the priest saying so is quite enough. As far as receiving the sacraments, I’m sure any pastor would be willing to work with you. There is no reason you could not simply receive the Precious Blood.

I know what you are going through. If I had to go to a church built entirely out of that horrible cheap plastic (interesting thought), and if everyone there were wearing clothes made of this plastic (ditto), I wouldn’t be able to go to Mass either. I hope it works out for you.

It will probably depend on your parish, and may not be possible until the pandemic has passed. My parish usually offers the chalice, however, before Mass was cancelled that was changed to low gluten. I suspect it will be the same for a while when we get back to Mass.

Right now, the obligation is still lifted in the US (afik).

Might be a time to sit down and talk to your pastor about your medical issues.

Now that you mention it, I avoid dollar stores for this very reason. I get a serious headache flare-up the moment I get a whiff of those places. Anyway, carry on with the original topic.

I have heard of churches offering fragrance-free and incense-free Masses. It’s worth a shot to investigate that option.

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Dollar stores generally don’t bother me. What gets me are these cheap clothing emporiums where everything is synthetic fabrics. The polyester fumes off-gassing can be pretty thick. I wear natural fibers wherever possible.

Weird idea, but have you tried rubbing Vasoline or Vicks inside your nostrils to block the perfume vapors from your nose receptors? The olfactory receptors can powerfully trigger the trigeminal vascular system.

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