Managing Scent Triggers at Holiday Gatherings

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.

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

Comments

View Comments (17)
  • Luna
    3 years ago

    People can leave off their scents for the party/gathering but they still smell. They and their clothes soak up the scents from perfume, essential oils, hair products, lotions, laundry detergent, cleaning products etc. When going out to stores, friends houses, or anywhere when I get home the clothes I’m wearing gets hung up outdoors to air out at least a day before they can come back in the house. And it is best if my hair is stuffed in my hat so it doesn’t pick up odor. If it does then my pillow smells and has to be aired out so my pillow is always covered with a folded towel. I am a recluse and at certain times of the year the recluse part gets really tiresome.

  • Crystalrz4
    5 years ago

    I too am bothered by so very many scents, perfumes, and the like. What I do not understand is why the employees in the medical professions are allowed to wear these things in this day and age. I remember back in the seventy’s when I worked in an E. R., no one working in medical was allowed to have any “Perfumey” smells on them. No overly fragrant deodorants, lotions, bath soaps, shampoos, absolutely no perfumes, sprays, or anything with a noticeable scent. Nowadays, you can not walk into a doctor’s office, lab, E.R., hospital, reception area, without all the “SMELLS” assailing you. Even if my head isn’t too bad that day, after a few minutes of the olfactory assault, my head is throbbing! When did these rules change??? And WHY??? … even in the Allergy Department where they should know better.

    Nothing like being in-house in the hospital, extremely ill, and having a doctor, nurse, or any other staff walk-in reeking, making my head explode, along with my insides exploding out!

    From my point of view, the concerns for the patients far out weight the rights of the medical personnel to express their “need” to cover themselves with strong, offensive odors. They can wear all they want on their “Off Time.”

    Just my humble opinion, of course.

  • BethAnn5
    5 years ago

    Reading everyone’s scent related posts is like reading my life! I’ve commented on 3, but I could comment on almost every one of them!
    I remember being about 4 & in my cousin’s wedding, we had to go to Knoxville TN (about 2 hrs away from us), we went to some HUGE fabric store because my mom & aunt were making the bridal party’s dresses. Everything smelled funny (the dyes etc..) & I remember not feeling well on the way…vision changes etc.. & feeling…weird all over when we got there. I got separated from mom, couldn’t see (my vision goes when I get a real doozie), and I remember a nice clerk with a beehive helping me to the bathroom where I threw up for what seemed like hours…mom got there & took over…we drove back to my aunts & I remember hearing her say it was because I was overcome with fear. I remember tying to retaliate & say that I was in pain, not afraid, but she had taught 3 months of school years ago, so she knew ALL about kids & knew better than I did. (whatever lady!)

  • katebenson
    5 years ago

    Now, if we could only get STORES to knock it off!!!

  • BethAnn5
    5 years ago

    A MEN!!! Those cinnamon scented pinecones at Bed, Bath & Beyond! They put them outside & I can’t even go NEAR the entire shopping center! My BF still doesn’t understand me & “sinnamon”, he thinks I don’t like it because it stinks…no dear, it’s because I want to throw my guts up, rip my head off & die! (I HATE, HATE, HATE the stuff!!!) This time of year is total torture because everyone has cinnamon something they’re selling! PEPPERMINT people, THAT’S the way to go! 😉 (lol)

  • Stepvw
    5 years ago

    This is so true. I recently quit my job in retail because the required scent in the store is a migraine trigger, and the company was unwilling to change. I do wish people were more understanding.

  • BethAnn5
    5 years ago

    I’ve been in retail for 20+ years, and ran into a bad boss at JCPenney who didn’t understand & almost fired me for passing out on the job because of a scent induced migraine!
    I had a GREAT boss at Cato, we had a potpourri we’d only get at Christmas, as soon as I walked in the door the first time we got it I threw up & passed out…they sent me home, damaged it out & every year for the next 13 years when we got it they’d call me telling me not to come in that day! They took care of me!

  • livinwithmigrainepain
    5 years ago

    This is truly a sad thing to say; but since I was a young girl I have always hated the holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas, along with the days leading up to them, cause me more physical pain then any other time of the year. I avoid shopping at all cost and when I do shop, I have to keep my nose covered or breath through my mouth. The scents in any store during these times of the year is cruel and unusual punishment for me. I am moody when I have to shop; because I know the pain is coming and when I get in the store, I rush get what I need and get out. Once I make it home I head straight to bed. Anything with any scent kills me, but the holidays, every retail store has excess scents out and that makes it 100% worse.

  • Meredith Putvin
    5 years ago

    Scents and Sinuses. I notice that Atmospheric changes trigger mine. Seasonal changes like Spring to summer, Sever weather like Hurricane Irene… These are also triggers for me as well as Cigarettes and heavy scents. It’s not just the scent, but it is tied to the sinuses.

  • Steelmagnolia
    5 years ago

    Same here.

  • cadevlin
    5 years ago

    Thank you for this article. I never thought to ask others to refrain from using certain scents, especially in my own home! My awareness to the scent trigger only began two years ago and I’ve suffered from migraines for 10 years. Like many others it’s cigarette smoke, perfumes, the deodorant my husband has used for the last 8 years, artificial scents and even the smell of coffee pot in my office. I love coffee but not the smell of it when it sits on the burner. But I can stick my face in a bouquet of flowers and feel just fine. Does anyone else feel migraine sick from this trigger but they don’t feel a full on pain of a migraine? I feel like I have a migraine without all the pain and the pain arrives in about 5-7 days of feeling this way.

  • lara
    5 years ago

    The scents that really bother me are usually perfume/cologne and cigarette/cigar smoke. Perfume and cologne wouldn’t be so bad if people didn’t bathe in it.

    When I was younger, my father smoked and my stepmother would make him “go outside” lest the house smell of smoke. I didn’t realize it but she was also saving me a migraine. I had no idea how terrible a cigarette smoke induced migraine would be until years later when I would get one in a restaurant in Las Vegas as a child (within minutes of smelling smoke). I threw up all over the table. I remember being offered ginger ale to settle my stomach and thinking all I wanted was a dark room and to cry. I didn’t even know it was a migraine back then. We referred to them as “sick headaches.”

    I still hate cigarettes with the passion of a fiery sun.

  • BethAnn5
    5 years ago

    My mother has smoked since she was 17 (she’s 76 now)& smoked inside until about 6 years ago…it wasn’t until I got married & moved out in 1996 that I realized smoke was a HUGE trigger for me! When I’d come home for something & would get sick she thought I was “putting on” trying to get her to quit…yes, I’d like her to quit, but I’d also like to stop hurting! I got divorced in 2010 & had to move home. She “smokes outside”, but it follows her in, clings to her clothing etc… & she wonders why I *STILL* get headaches? UGH!

  • sarals
    5 years ago

    I am terribly sensitive to scents and can smell things that others are completely oblivious too. I have found that for me using good peppermint essential oils and rubbing that on my temples and under my nose often when i’m reacting to odors or scents helps to relax my head some plus the scent of peppermint to me is very relaxing and stimulating at the same time so it blocks the offensive ones. I have also used a trick that those who perform autopsies and embalm ppl use which is to use vicks vapo rub and put just a small amount inside my nose as often as needed to block the offending smells. I also use it on my shoulders and muscles to relax when tension builds. Hope that gives some tips to some.

  • Katlin
    4 years ago

    I find this post so interesting. Odours such as paint and musk type perfumes have been migraine triggers for me for nearly fifty years. I have had evenings at theatres and the like ruined by perfume. However, I discovered that peppermint is a great help. I have an aromatherapy locket that I am able to put peppermint essential oil in and have found it enormously helpful in social situations. It isn’t strong enough to counter the smell of a freshly painted room, however.

  • kellyeliz07
    5 years ago

    I logged in specifically to suggest the SAME thing as sarals. Menthol rub under the nose is strong enough to block out other scents while relaxing the tension building in my neck and shoulders from any offending odors.

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