Why Do Candles Make It Hard To Breathe?

Candles are popular household items that many people use for decorative lighting, aromatherapy, or to create a cozy ambiance. However, some individuals experience breathing difficulties like coughing, wheezing, or shortness of breath when exposed to candle smoke. This article explores why candles can make it hard to breathe for some people.

We’ll examine the chemical compounds found in candle smoke that act as respiratory irritants. Factors that increase susceptibility to candle smoke will be reviewed, such as asthma and chronic lung diseases. The impacts of poor ventilation when burning candles will also be discussed. Finally, safer candle alternatives and ways to limit exposure will be provided to help readers breathe easier around candle usage.

Candle Smoke Contains Irritants

Candles can certainly bring some candlelight romance and ambience to any setting, but the smoke they produce is surprisingly dangerous. The main irritants in candle smoke are soot, volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and scented oils.

Soot refers to the black carbon particles released when a candle burns. These microscopic particles easily lodge in your lungs when inhaled (source). Soot is a known human carcinogen and can exacerbate respiratory conditions like asthma.

a person blowing out a candle.

VOCs are organic chemical compounds that become gaseous at room temperature. Common VOCs emitted from candles include benzene, toluene, and xylene. According to research, exposure to these compounds is linked to headaches, dizziness, and lung irritation (source). VOCs can also react with ozone to produce harmful secondary pollutants.

Scented oils make candles smell nice, but these added fragrances usually contain phthalates, which are hormone disruptors and have been associated with developmental issues (source). Studies show scented candle emissions contain just as many toxic chemicals as unscented candles.

Candle Smoke Impacts Lung Function

Breathing in candle smoke can have negative effects on lung function and health. According to a 2023 study published in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, exposure to emissions from scented candles is associated with inflammation and constriction of the airways [1]. When inhaled, the soot and chemicals released from burning candles can irritate the lungs. This causes inflammation and swelling in the airways, making it harder to breathe.

Additional research has shown that just a few hours of exposure to candle emissions can lead to a measurable transient decline in lung function [2]. Scientists found a 5-10% decrease in measures of lung function after exposure to candle smoke in a controlled setting. The impaired lung function was accompanied by increased inflammation in the airways. While these studies involved relatively short exposures, the findings indicate that regular or prolonged inhalation of candle smoke could potentially have chronic effects on respiratory health.

The lung irritation and inflammation caused by candle smoke may trigger coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath in some individuals. Those with pre-existing respiratory conditions like asthma are at greatest risk of experiencing acute symptoms when exposed to candle emissions. But even healthy individuals may have reduced lung function after breathing the smoke released from burning candles.

Those Most at Risk

Certain groups of people are especially susceptible to the negative health effects of inhaling candle smoke. This includes people with respiratory conditions like asthma and COPD. According to a 2021 study published in the Journal of Inflammation Research, exposure to scented candle emissions can trigger bronchial obstruction in those with asthma (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC8320639/). The smoke particles act as irritants, inflaming the airways and making it more difficult to breathe.

someone using an inhaler.

Another at-risk group is the elderly. As we age, lung capacity and function declines. Older adults often have a harder time coughing up and expelling the tiny particulates in candle smoke. This can lead to reduced oxygen levels in the blood and exacerbate conditions like COPD according to a 2021 study (https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2666027X21000256).

Young children are also vulnerable. Their smaller still-developing airways and higher breathing rates compared to adults result in a greater dose of candle smoke with each breath according to research (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2023/08/230831121728.htm). This puts them at higher risk of respiratory issues from candle burning.

Poorly Ventilated Spaces

Candle smoke can quickly build up in rooms that are poorly ventilated or have limited fresh airflow. Smaller rooms with few windows and doors are more prone to smoke accumulation. According to the EPA, high concentrations of pollutants can gather when ventilation is inadequate[1]. This allows particulate matter and other irritants from candles to linger rather than properly exhausting to the outside.

Recirculating air also causes pollutants to accumulate. Spaces that lack sufficient air exchange allow contaminants to remain stagnant. Air conditioning and heating systems that don’t bring in fresh air contribute to this problem. The American Lung Association warns that lacking proper ventilation leads to increased exposure to indoor air pollution from sources like candles[1].

To avoid problematic smoke buildup, burn candles in well-ventilated areas with open windows or doors. Consider using them for shorter durations or use ventilation fans to aid airflow.

Use Safer Alternatives

If you want to continue enjoying candlelight and aroma, consider switching to cleaner burning candles made from natural materials like beeswax or soy wax. These alternatives produce minimal soot.

beeswax candles on a table.

Beeswax candles are made from honeycomb and burn much cleaner than paraffin. The natural wax produces little smoke and doesn’t release compounds that can irritate lungs. Beeswax candles have a sweet honey-like scent as they burn.

Soy wax is another option made from soybean oil. Soy candles release very little soot and are often infused with essential oils for pleasant aromas. The natural soy wax also holds fragrances nicely. Just be sure soy candles are 100% soy-based and not a paraffin blend.

Essential oil diffusers are another alternative to candles that disperse wonderful scents without any smoke. Diffusers use ultrasonic vibrations to break down essential oils into a fine vapor mist. This allows you to fill your space with lovely aromas safely.

Open Windows

One of the best ways to improve air circulation when burning candles is to open the windows. This allows fresh air to enter the room while stale air exits. Proper ventilation is key to limiting the buildup of potentially harmful particles and gases from candle smoke.

Open windows on opposite sides of a room to create cross ventilation. This allows for better air exchange compared to opening just one window. Make sure windows are fully opened and not just cracked slightly. The more open the windows are, the better the airflow will be.

Consider using fans in windows or free-standing fans to enhance airflow further. Position fans to blow air out of windows rather than blowing inward. This helps expel candle smoke from the room.

Pay attention to airflow patterns when candles are lit. If smoke seems to linger rather than dissipate, open additional windows or adjust fan positioning as needed. Proper ventilation helps minimize exposure to candle irritants.

During cold weather when you don’t want to open windows for extended periods, be extra cautious about candle burning. Open windows for short bursts of fresh air, burn fewer candles at once, or avoid usage altogether.

With good ventilation habits, you can safely enjoy candle ambiance. Just be sure to open windows adequately when lighting candles indoors.

Limit Candle Burning

While candles can provide pleasant ambiance, it’s important to avoid prolonged or excessive use. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), you should limit the burning time of a candle to no more than 4 hours, and let it fully cool for at least 2 hours before relighting.

stopwatch timing a burning candle.

Burning a candle continuously or for too long in one sitting releases more contaminants into the air over time. These contaminants can cause throat irritation, coughing, and wheezing. Limiting burn time keeps exposure to irritants lower.

The NFPA also recommends blowing out candles when leaving a room or going to sleep, keeping burning candles away from drafts, vents, ceiling fans, and placing them at least 12 inches from anything that can burn.

By avoiding excessive or prolonged use and taking other safety precautions, you can reduce respiratory risks while still enjoying candles.

See a Doctor

If exposure to candle smoke causes severe symptoms like wheezing, coughing, chest tightness or shortness of breath, it’s important to seek medical attention right away. The irritants in candle smoke can trigger asthma attacks or worsen other respiratory conditions (Reference).

Seeking prompt medical care can help avoid long-term lung damage from the effects of inhaling candle smoke. Doctors may prescribe medications like bronchodilators or steroids to reduce inflammation in the lungs and make breathing easier.

In some cases, doctors may recommend a chest x-ray or other diagnostic testing to check for any lung injury caused by the smoke exposure. The earlier treatment begins, the better the outcome typically is.

People with chronic lung diseases like COPD should take special precautions to avoid candle smoke, which can exacerbate their condition. At the first sign of symptoms flaring up from candle smoke, they should contact their doctor right away.

For milder symptoms like nasal congestion or eye irritation, over-the-counter medications can help provide relief. But if symptoms persist for more than a few days after smoke exposure, it’s a good idea to see a doctor to rule out any lingering effects on the lungs.


In summary, burning candles can make it difficult to breathe because the smoke contains irritating chemicals and particulates. Those most sensitive are children, the elderly, and people with respiratory conditions. Poor ventilation worsens the problem. To reduce health impacts, open windows to allow airflow, limit candle burning, and use safer wax-free alternatives when possible. If symptoms persist, see a doctor. The main takeaway is that while candles set a mood, overuse in enclosed spaces poses risks. Careful moderation is key. With some simple precautions, candles can be enjoyed safely.

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