Managing Scent Triggers at Holiday Gatherings

When perfume, air freshener, scented candles, potpourri and other scents are a migraine trigger, holiday gathers can be fraught with stress and, of course, migraine attacks. Since there’s no medication or nose filter to block out scents, asking others to avoid wearing or using them around us is the only way to avoid this trigger. And it’s a really tough thing to ask. Here are some suggestions for making the conversation a little less uncomfortable.

It’s easiest to make this request if you’re hosting. Let everyone you invite know that your house is scent-free and to not wear perfume, cologne or scented lotion. You may choose to explain that scents are a migraine trigger and you need to minimize your exposure to triggers in order to be a good host. If you think they may ignore your request, tell them ahead of time that you cannot allow anyone who is wearing scents into your home and you will ask them to leave if they are.

If someone else is hosting, explain the situation and ask if they will avoid using scented products in the house and wearing perfume at the event. Make it clear that you will have to leave the event if anyone arrives scented. Then enlist their help in spreading the word to guests. Guests are likely to be understanding when their host says, “I really want my daughter to be able to celebrate with us, so please don't wear any scented products to Thanksgiving dinner.” If a host refuses to work with you, then you have to decide whether you’d rather risk the migraine or decline the invitation. Even if it’s from you grandmother.

Some things to keep in mind:

  • Be gentle, kind, and complimentary. Scents are very personal and people can get offended when they feel like you don’t like the way they smell. Be sure to say scents, not odors, which implies that the smell is offensive – even if you find perfume repulsive, Aunt Sally has chosen carefully the perfume she wears and thinks she smells wonderful.
  • Make sure people know that this isn’t a personal preference, but a health issue and that you won’t be able to spend the holiday with them if they wear scents. You may have to explain that scents, even nice ones like perfume and scented lotions, can trigger a migraine. If they are resistant or want to learn more, share Ellen’s letter, Fragrance Can Be Dangerous for Migraine Patients.
  • Telling people you will ask them to leave or you will leave the gathering is not a manipulative threat, but the consequence of people wearing scents around you. Only say it if you’re actually willing to ask guests to leave or to leave yourself. If you don’t follow through on such statements, no one will believe scents really are an issue for you.
  • If your family isn’t hosting the event, it may be more comfortable to have the person who connects you to them (your partner, your daughter-in-law, etc.) make the request. Even if you speak with them directly, be sure that the person who connects you understands the ramifications of you getting a scent-triggered migraine and supports you. There’s a chance the host will complain to them about the request and you’ll need them to back you up.
  • Use discretion in deciding which events to make this request for – it’s a lot to expect everyone at your boyfriend’s work party or your friend’s huge New Year’s Eve celebration to forgo scents, but it’s totally reasonable to ask people at family gatherings to do so.

Asking people not to wear or use scents is not requiring special accommodations, it’s requesting that they avoid something that will make you sick and, thus, make you unable to spend time with them. If holidays are truly about being with loved ones, then people should be happy to do whatever they can to ensure you’re able to join the party.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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