Migraine and sensitivity to odors.

Migraine & Sensitivity to Odors

Do you have an aversion to odors, unpleasant or not, during a migraine attack? What about between attacks? Do you seem to be able to smell scents others don’t even notice? While sensitivity to light and sound get more attention in discussions of migraine, people with migraine also report being sensitive to odors. Two recently published studies, one on episodic migraine and one on chronic, explore this phenomenon.

In both studies, researchers wanted to find out if people with migraine actually have a better sense of smell during an attack than people without migraine or if our ability to smell remains the same, but we perceive smells to be stronger. It’s a fine distinction that’s easiest to understand in terms of sound.

If this study were done with sound, researchers would test participants’ hearing both during and between migraine attacks. If a person could hear a wider range of sounds during a migraine attack than they could when they didn’t have a migraine, it would indicate that they have better hearing during attacks. If a person’s hearing tests were the same during and between migraine attacks, it would indicate that they perceive sounds to be louder during an attack, but don’t have an actual increase in their ability to hear. That’s essentially what the researchers did with odors.

Episodic Migraine & Sense of Smell

In the study on episodic migraine, researchers reported that, for the most part, participants’ ability to smell was the same during and between migraine attacks. People with episodic migraine did not have a better sense of smell than people who don’t have migraine. Even people with episodic migraine who believed they had a stronger sense of smell during migraine attacks did not. Of those who did have a change in their ability to smell during a migraine attack, many had a decreased ability. These findings indicate that episodic migraineurs’ perception of odors being stronger in during a migraine attack is just that, a perception. It’s like with light – lights aren’t actually brighter during a migraine, they just appear to be brighter.


Chronic Migraine & Sense of Smell

People with chronic migraine were much more likely to have a better or worse ability to smell than those with episodic migraine, but their sense of smell remained the same during and between migraine attacks. It also did not fluctuate depending on migraine severity. The study included 50 participants with chronic migraine. Of those, objective tests showed that two had a better sense of smell and four had a worse sense of smell during a migraine attack than when they were migraine-free. However, 44% reported that they could smell better on migraine days, 2% thought their ability to smell worsened, and 52% said their ability remained the same. Of those who believed their sense of smell was better during a migraine attack, almost half (10 of 22) had that belief confirmed by tests, while seven of the 22 actually had a worse ability to smell. Like with people who have episodic migraine, this study shows that perception plays a role in scent sensitivity of those with chronic migraine, but the finding are not as distinct as with episodic migraine. Researchers believe the difference could be due to the increased central sensitization of chronic migraine.

Why This Research Matters to Patients

Distinguishing the difference between actual increased ability and a perceived increase helps scientists pinpoint which areas and processes of the brain to study to determine what causes an aversion to scents (and other sensory stimuli) during a migraine. It is another piece of the puzzle to shed light on what’s happening in the body during a migraine attack and the differences between episodic and chronic migraine. The more pieces researchers can fit together, the better treatments can be tailored to our specific needs.

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.
View References
Marmura, M. J., Monteith, T. S., Anjum, W., Doty, R. L., Hegarty, S. E., & Keith, S. W. (2014). Olfactory function in migraine both during and between attacks. Cephalalgia. [published online ahead of print]   Whiting, A. C., Marmura, M. J., Hegarty, S. E., & Keith, S. W. (2014). Olfactory Acuity in Chronic Migraine: A Cross‐Sectional Study. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain. [published online ahead of print]

Comments

View Comments (10)
  • 1ark8os
    4 weeks ago

    I have always been very sensitive to odors. Even as a young girl, there were certain perfumes that would immediately cause a migraine. I can’t tolerate any odor of alcohol without getting a migraine and cigar, pipe and cigarette smoke makes me immediately nauseous and in full-on migraine mode. Before laws were passed and people were allowed to smoke in restaurants and on planes etc. my life was almost unbearable. I also worked in an office where a woman smoked at her desk. Nowadays I can avoid a lot of these situations, but it’s still a problem. People that smoke and drink don’t seem to believe me if I tell them that I get migraines from these smells. I have many other triggers too, and get 15-18 migraines a month. I don’t want to come off as some kind of religious fanatic or something but people don’t believe me when I try to explain about migraine triggers. What can I do, short of finding new friends?

  • birdnerd
    3 years ago

    I’m curious if anyone has had an experience similar to this. As this research suggests, my sense of smell is the same on migraine days and non-migraine days, but I feel that my sense of smell has changed as my migraines have shifted from episodic to chronic in the past year. Now there are some things that I used to be able to smell but no longer can smell (like the cat’s litter box) and other things that smell much stronger than they used to (like pizza).

  • donnajeann
    3 years ago

    Most smells do give me a migraine, all perfumes. I have had to shop all over for shampoo and conditioner, CVS has one with little smell but there is none with no smell. I colored my hair and was sick for 3 days. Remodeling at work so the paint smell and wallpaper paste smell are making me very very ill.

  • Nina Rose
    4 years ago

    Most of the time I can’t smell anything at all due to allergies, but then I’m still able to smell perfume or cologne or bleach from a mile away! Last week I thought I was improving because my brother’s ‘Armani Code’ wasn’t giving me a migraine or making me feel weird, then last night I was sitting beside him in the car and I thought I’d never get away! So disappointing.

  • DinaMay
    4 years ago

    I know my sense of smell is not especially keen. With allergies, a lot of the time I’m too stopped up to smell anything. Even so, certain odorous things can trigger a migraine — strong perfumes, certain household cleansers, wet paint smells, etc. Sometimes part of the aura includes a weird smell. Only it’s not really an odor because nobody else can smell it. It’s like the “light show” that only I see. I’ve heard of aural hallucinations (sounds) as well as visual ones. Evidently there are also nasal hallucinations (or something like that).

  • Kerrie Smyres moderator author
    4 years ago

    Yep, they’re called olfactory hallucinations. They’re rare, but definitely happen to some of us. I get them infrequently and am always surprised when I do. Recently, I smelled cigarette butts in my clothes dryer and had to ask my husband if he smelled it too (he didn’t).

  • SunupShutterbug
    4 years ago

    I am in the chronic migraine camp and my sense of smell plays tricks on me. One day while I was at work I could smell cupcakes clear as day. I went into the break room excited to think we were having a party of some sort. No cupcakes. I went back to work and sure enough, the smell of cupcakes soon caught my attention again. A customer came by and I asked her if she could smell cupcakes. She paused and after a bit shook her head and said ‘No’. Eventually I walked over to the bakery and asked if they had been baking cupcakes and they told me they had been baking bread all day.

    I have since had similar episodes and have learned I can’t always trust my sense of smell any more.

  • Kerrie Smyres moderator author
    4 years ago

    You’re not alone! Olfactory hallucinations are a known migraine symptom that’s usually part of the aura before the pain begins.

  • Luna
    4 years ago

    The way I understand this article is that they were testing for odor sensitivity that come with migraine but not sensitivity to odors as triggers. So it makes perfect sense to me that I don’t have an increased sense of smell when the “odor aura” starts up. Just like my vision isn’t increased just because light suddenly hurts my eyes and/or there are wiggly patterns in my vision.

    I notice odors others don’t but they aren’t bothered by the odors so that makes a difference.

  • Kerrie Smyres moderator author
    4 years ago

    That’s how I read it, too.

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