A nightmare of incense

A nightmare of incense

Over the holidays, my Avid Bookshop staff and I wanted to have a little party to celebrate the season and each other.  As always, I tried to make things more complicated than they needed to be, wondering what food we would make or have delivered.  My friends reminded me that having a handful of cheap snacks plus plenty to drink (alcoholic and otherwise) was all we needed for a fun night.

It was my self-assigned duty to retrieve alcohol for the party.  Over the years, my drinking nights have become more and more rare.  This particular night I wasn’t planning on imbibing at all, but I wanted to make sure we had a few options on hand.

My boyfriend Jim and I went to the liquor store around the corner from the house where the party would be held. I wanted to get some liquor and mixers and perhaps a case of beer.  We got out of the car—the December air was crisp but not too cold, and the storefront was decorated with big white lights, reminding us that Christmas wasn’t far off.

We walked into the store and BOOM!

More incense than I’ve ever encountered at once smacked me in the face, swirled around my head, shot up my nostrils, and stung the back of my throat. I swear, they must have had ten sticks going.  Usually this liquor store has a little bit burning and I can zoom in and out quickly, but this was out of control.  I actually held my breath as I stacked bottles in my hand. I walked them to the counter and plopped them down so I could go back to the refrigerated cases to find some beer. I retrieved a case and found that, even though I was holding my breath, the smell was unbearable and my migraine brain was starting to feel tingly. It happened that fast.

Very quickly and—I’ll admit it—pretty rudely, I shoved my debit card into Jim’s hands and said, “I can’t be in here!”  I ran out and took huge gulps of winter air into my lungs, trying to wring out my brain and clean out my nostrils.  I felt as if the smell had stuck on me and that I’d never get it off, like it was glued to every single hair in my nose and every pore in my skin.  Do I sound overdramatic? So be it: I do have a theatre background, after all. But trust me: this was bad.

Jim came out a few minutes later and we put the stuff in the car.  I thanked him for his service, and he pointed out something I hadn’t even considered—he, too, is a migraineur who’s sensitive to smells, and the situation was pretty rough for him, too.  I hadn’t even thought about that, and I found myself apologizing. I was so stuck in my own discomfort and identity as “the migraine girl” that I didn’t stop to think that he was making a sacrifice by staying in there for me.

A few minutes later, we were at the bookshop holiday party. Turns out other people had been at the same store that night and also found the smell unbearable.

I haven’t been back to that store since, but not just because of the smell—it’s just that I haven’t had any occasion to buy any alcohol.  When I do return, though, I wonder if I’ll say anything about the incense. Would you? Or have you had the experience where you have decide to speak up about a major migraine trigger (especially one that is affecting even non-migraineurs)?

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View Comments (15)
  • Sandy
    4 years ago

    i try to avoid stores that have scents. If I can’t, I try to have someone with me, use drive through (my pharmacy has strong scented candles at the counter), or get what I need quickly (washing powder aisle in Wal-Mart).

  • 4 years ago

    I cannot enter any place where scented products are burned, plugged in, sprayed or worn. Even if incense was burned 3 days ago or plug in used yesterday. The chemicals that create the odor remain on all surfaces, fabrics in particular and I get a migraine very quickly.

  • Piglet
    4 years ago

    My husband insists on using Skin So Soft to repel bugs (he thinks). I get queasy just thinking about that smell. For a short time, people in my office went Febreeze crazy and ultimately a ban was enacted (shared ductwork). It’s never comfortable to ask for a change in behaviors that some like, but if I have a migraine It affects my work, which is my livelihood, so these little preferences and habits take a back seat to my ability to work. Due to the lights and smells, I shop mostly online. I do not use dry cleaning. Since one never knows what will trigger discomfort in someone else, I do not use scented products, perfume, scented candles, or air fresheners even if I can tolerate them. Oddly, I have never been botherd by a natural scent (such as flowers or plants in the yard or food).

  • 4 years ago

    I can’t handle the natural “perfume” of flowers either! The first bouquet I received from a daughter (from out of state), on a Mother’s Day, had to give away. They were beautiful.

  • SamanthaAnn
    4 years ago

    In my office we had a new group move to our floor and several of their employees has Scentsy warmers on their desks, each with different smells. My cubicle-neighbor and I are migraineurs who are greatly affected by smell, but with so much going on, even our other co-workers said it was unbearable. After about 3 weeks, I finally contacted my HR Department and the manager of the new group and within hours, everyone had removed their scent warmers and we could breathe again!

  • kellyeliz07
    4 years ago

    I am in grad school and spend 6 hours at a time with my cohort in classes. A lot of us bring food, and in the name of being germ-free, most people slather on strongly-scented hand sanitizer before eating. Which is a smell that causes immediate tightness in my neck and head, signally a migraine is imminent. Outside of the classroom, I can usually avoided the person who just used the product and soon the smell will dissipate and not cause me further trouble. However, in our poorly-ventilated classroom where I can’t just walk out, it’s overwhelming and painful. I’ve begun to tell a few of the classmates I am closest to, and they’re incredibly respectful, but the others have no idea, and it’s miserable!

  • aellis
    4 years ago

    I was in a the little town of Cloudcroft in NM last winter when my friend and I went into a store selling bath salts. It was like running into a brick wall. I looked at my friend and said, “This is awful – I’ll meet you outside.” Fortunately after several minutes of breathing the cold air, it passed and a migraine was avoided.

    I can deal with one scent at a time it seems, but the overwhelming combination of multiple scents is intolerable. Scent usually isn’t my biggest trigger (weather is – ick), but that day it could have been. My mother who is also afflicted with migraines has the same issue. She can’t walk into Bath and Body Works if someone has used Brown Sugar Vanilla scented anything.

    Where I get my pedicures, they usually have incense burning at their altars. They have been very agreeable about burning only one scent at a time when I make an appointment. I would definitely let the store know. I am sure you and your boyfriend were not the only ones affected.

  • mahazlette
    4 years ago

    Smells are my #1 trigger. My neuro states it an autonomic function. My husband, a retired policeman, suggested Vicks vapor rub in my nose to block the smell. It works and I am no longer AS afraid to leave my house.

  • Gemma Joyce moderator
    4 years ago

    Hi Mags,

    Thank you for sharing your experience and tip for blocking odors with us. So glad it helps you! I have been using a frankincense scented beeswax balm (which is actually designed for hay fever) on my nostrils and find it blocks the worst of the triggering odors such as cigarette smoke and perfume. I will have to give the Vicks a try. Thanks again.


  • 263p39d
    4 years ago

    This happens to be at the Big Box stores like Macy’s, lord and Taylor, jcpenney and others that have both men and women’s perfume/cologne displays right as you enter the store. The mix of smells and flourescent lights causes me to throw up and pass out. Going to the mall was once an activity I loved. Now my family has to help me plan which stores we need to go to and the best way to avoid those triggers otherwise I’ll be passing out and throwing up and being wheeled out into an ambulance. Another huge trigger for me is super center stores, wal mart, Costco, BJs there too because of the lights the mob of people and the fact that they purposely put the milk and dog food at opposite ends or sides of the store. I can’t go to one of these stores alone since it’s likeley I’ll pass out.

  • Gemma Joyce moderator
    4 years ago

    Hi 263p39d,

    I’m sorry to hear of your experiences at the big stores.

    I thought you might be interested in the following articles about the use of tinted lenses to filter out the wavelengths of light which can be a trigger for some people. Tinted lenses may also help with light sensitivity. I am thinking of asking my optician about this at my next appointment as fluorescent lights are one of my biggest triggers.


    More information on triggers in general can be found here:


  • cwiljdmom
    4 years ago

    I have several triggers and overbearing scents is one of them. I always seem to find the consumers that went back for 1 that one extra squirt or it came out too fast. Unfortunately you can’t always avoid them or change seats, not that going all the way across the theater would help, it might help rather than confrontation. I have also found that if I am visiting a business; those with the scents are generally small businesses; if I ask them when they burn the scents or if they could maybe delay on a specific morning when they open it is a better option for me. Explaining why to the business owner has helped a lot!!!! I have become a repeat customer and taken in some of my friends who also suffer with migraines. They calls us there migraine clobbers around town.

  • Mary
    4 years ago

    My trigger is light, not scents. I actually enjoy scents. But I would say something about the scents in the liquor store. I wouldn’t say anything about scents in places where you would expect scents.. perfume and cosmetic stores, that kind of thing. But in other public emporiums where the scents are not part of the offered product mix, there is no real marketing reason to display them.

  • RobertCan
    4 years ago

    Trigger avoidance is a fact of life for us. I don’t bother to ask a store owner to change their practice of burning incense because its not likely to result in any changes. They do it because they like it and the one customer that speaks up against it (me) isn’t enough reason for them to stop it.

    I’m passionate about avoiding known triggers. I have to be because I’m the one that suffers in pain. So that sometimes means a dramatic reaction when abruptly confronted by something like incense. I don’t mean to be dramatic. I’m just doing my best to avoid pain. It’s that passion for avoiding pain that sometimes comes off as “dramatic”.

    Wishing you all a pain-free day – robert

  • Luna
    4 years ago

    Personally I would have turned around at the door and gone to another store. The smell permeates the mucus membranes (eyes, mouth and nose), skin, hair and clothes. It takes at least 3 days for it to wear out of the hair. Can shampoo the smell down a little but not much. Then the pillow takes on the smell over night so have to cover the pillow with a towel that gets aired out during the day. I now wear my hair up in a hat when I go anywhere. Which is irritating because I look much better (younger than 70) with my hair down. My health is more important than vanity. Have to hang my clothes on front porch for at least a day to air out.
    And if you want to continue going to that store speak up. It may or may not make a difference but if it does others may appreciate fresher air also. I used to go to a bookstore that started using vanilla for an air freshener. I talked to the owner. It made no difference so I go to another bookstore in town.

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