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Migraine Symptoms: Olfactory Hallucinations

When we think of Migraine aura, the visual aura symptoms most commonly come to mind. In their diagnostic criteria for “typical aura,” the International Headache Society (IHS) states that the typical aura consists of at least one of the following:

  1. fully reversible visual symptoms including positive features (e.g., flickering lights, spots or lines) and/or negative features (i.e., loss of vision)
  2. fully reversible sensory symptoms including positive features (i.e., pins and needles) and/or negative features (i.e., numbness)
  3. fully reversible dysphasic speech disturbance4

There are, however, other possible aura symptoms that have not made their way into the IHS criteria. One of these symptoms is olfactory hallucinations (phantosmias), which is smelling odors that aren’t really present.

Coleman et al examined the features of 25 cases from medical literature. They also reviewed patient records from more than 2,100 patients seen at the Montefiore Headache Center over a 30-month period and found 14 cases (just under 7%) where patients had described smelling scents during their headaches or Migraines.


The objective of their study was:

“to gain a greater understanding of this phenomenon by performing a detailed analysis of the aggregated patients reported in the literature and those encountered at our center, which treats a diverse urban patient population as well as a large number of regional and national referrals. We also aimed to estimate the prevalence of phantosmias across all primary headache disorder patients evaluated at our center.”2

They hypothesized that:

  1. most headache patients experiencing phantosmias have migraine,
  2. phantosmias have similar semiology (symptoms or signs) to other aura types in their timing and evolution, and
  3. phantosmias become less frequent with prophylactic therapies aimed at suppressing the underlying headache disorder.2

Of the 39 patients with olfactory hallucinations identified:

  • 33 patients (84.6%) had Migraine,
  • three patients (7.7%) had cluster headaches,
  • one patient had hemicrania continua, and
  • one patient had chronic daily headache.

Dr. Brian Grosberg summarized the findings of this study in a conversation I had with him:

“Phantosmias, or olfactory hallucinations, can rarely be a part of the aura that some people experience before a Migraine attack. About 20-25% of people with recurrent Migraines have an aura that precedes or accompanies their headaches. Unlike visual, sensory, and language auras, disturbances in the sense of smell (i.e., olfactory hallucinations) have not been recognized as part of Migraine aura. My colleagues and I think this is because olfactory hallucinations have not been commonly reported. We found that only 0.7% of our patients described smelling scents in conjunction with their headaches. It’s certainly uncommon, but it is distinctive. Usually, the olfactory hallucinations are not sweet. The most scents are either burning or smoky. Some headache sufferers described a general burning smell, while other said they smelled cigar smoke, wood smoke or burned popcorn. After those burning scents, “decomposition” odors like garbage or sewage were the next most common. A few people did describe pleasant odors, including the scent of oranges or coffee.”5

Study summary:

Coleman et al. state:

“In summary, phantosmias are an uncommon but distinct manifestation of headache disorders. They occur predominately in women with migraine and are usually readily identifiable and unpleasant, with burning the single most common odor described. Their semiology, timing and response to headache prophylaxis suggest that they deserve strong consideration as a form of aura.”2

Wrapping it up

Although not listed as an aura symptom by the IHS, olfactory hallucinations have been shown to occur as a Migraine aura symptom. Most olfactory hallucinations aren’t pleasant scents; they’re either burning or smoky. or odors such as garbage or sewage. A smaller number of patients describe pleasant odors.

Dr. Grosberg said, “It’s certainly uncommon, but it is distinctive.” I suspect that olfactory hallucinations aren’t as uncommon as they seem. I suspect that patients don’t report them because they’re not specifically asked about them and haven’t associated them with their Migraines. If a Migraineur has no other aura symptoms, they may even have been diagnosed with and think they have Migraine without aura. We’ve seen this with Migraine prodrome where patients think they don’t experience the prodrome until they’re asked about specific prodrome symptoms.

This is an area that could use more research, and I agree with the authors that olfactory hallucinations deserve consideration by the IHS as a form of aura.

Have you ever had olfactory hallucinations with your Migraines?

Post a comment and discuss them with us!

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.

1 Norton, Amy. “Hallucinated scents can, rarely, be part of the ‘aura’ that some people perceive before a migraine attack, a new study finds.” New York. Reuters Health. October 14, 2011. – 2 Coleman, Elisheva R.; Grosberg, Brian M.; Robbins, Matthew S. “Olfactory hallucinations in primary headache disorders: Case series and literature review.” Cephalalgia 2011 31:1477. DOI: 10.1177/0333102411423315. – 3 Coleman E.R.; Grosberg B.M.; Robbins M.S. “Reappraising the Olfactory Aura in Primary Headache Disorders.” Washington, DC. Research Poster Presentation; 53rd annual scientific meeting of the American Headache Society. – 4 Headache Classification Committee of the International Headache Society. “The International Classification of Headache Disorders, 2nd Edition.” Cephalalgia 24 (s1). doi: 10.1111/j. 1468-2982.2003.00824.x – 5 Interview. Teri Robert with Brian M. Grosberg. October 17, 2011.

Comments

  • retired1
    6 months ago

    I experience the smell of vehicle exhaust most often, and sometimes I have smelled something like burning electrical wires or other burning/smoky odors. When it first happened, I had my mechanic examine my SUV for an exhaust leak. I haven’t always had these olfactory hallucinations, and it is happening more often lately.

  • Jennykate35
    7 months ago

    I experience the smell of a sweet pipe, like a grandfather smokes. It’s actually quite soothing and smells wonderful. It only happens before my worst migraines. I finally connected the two a few months ago. I thought I was either crazy or my house was haunted! 🙂 Now I know when I smell a pipe I better take my Imitrex!!

  • DeAnna G
    7 months ago

    I had surgery 2 years ago, with complications. Ebert since I have had issues with olfactory hallucinations, that coincide with cold feeling in the pre frontal cortex. And brain confusion. And inability to think and sometimes speak correctly. This does not happen all the time, and did not happen before my accident and surgery… any idea how to cope with or eliminate the smells, they are sometimes so strong they take my breath away

  • vspeirs
    8 months ago

    Does anyone have olfactory hallucinations at random times such as AFTER the headache or even in isolation? I’m wondering if these “smells” are relate to sinus problems rather than migraine.

  • johnpaul
    8 months ago

    I’m trying out the Gammacore Sapphire. I’ll let all know how I’m getting on.

  • johnpaul
    8 months ago

    Hello,

    I smell the same. It’s dreadful. Apparently my neurologist says lots of people do?? Ugh

  • johnpaul
    9 months ago

    I smell dog faeces

  • MagicZeus
    9 months ago

    I smell methane, or is it propane? A natural gas smell. The first time I went around my home checking for leaks it was so strong. I moved and when it happened again in my new place with no gas I began to wonder and mentioned it to my doctor as both times I had a bad one come on. Yesterday at work I smelled it again and remarked jokingly to my manager that either something smelled like gas or I was having a migraine come on. A few hours later it was no joke and now I’ve had to take a day off. I’m currently in the numb phase where my meds are keeping it at bay but I know it will come back full force later. Every time the gas smell happens it’s been a 3 day affair.

  • tfrancell
    9 months ago

    First I’d like to say that I’m not yet sure if this phantosmias episode is Migraine related, because I do get them, but this would be a not so painful one, but this phantom smell is truly awful. In the past I’ve smelled stale cigarette smoke in my house, yet I don’t smoke and I live alone, but this one started about a week ago and it smells like a combo of toxic chemicals and burning plastic. For a while I thought the fan in my air purifier was burning out and then thought it might be a fan in my computer burning up, but when I still smelled it outdoors, at work and even at the doctor’s office, I knew it was another phantom smell. It’s so bad that if I breath in too deeply it sometimes makes me choke. It’s so bad that I’m hoping it’s only a migraine and not something worse like a brain tumor or an early symptom of Parkinson’s.

  • Dee112
    10 months ago

    I often smell bleach.

  • Avyleigh
    10 months ago

    I have been sitting at my desk all day smelling turds. No one else here can smell this. They probably think Im crazy.. This has happened to me before and today it clicked that I am always having a migrane/headache at the time soo a quick google search brought me here. Why can’t I smell oranges 🙁

  • Joanna Bodner moderator
    10 months ago

    Of all things to smell @Avyleigh! Ughh…so sorry! Know you are not alone in this VERY bothersome symptom. 🙁 On another note, we sure are happy you found us here! Always feel free to reach out. -Joanna (Migraine.com Team)

  • krisjkuz
    11 months ago

    I started smelling cigarette smoke a couple of years ago. No one else could smell it. It’s been off and on since then but in the past 3 months or so it has been getting worse. I not only smell cigarettes, now, I smell poop and cigarettes. Before the migraine pain starts it’s just cigarettes and once the pain starts the poop smell begins. When I told my doc about this she sent me for an MRI. The results came in today. I have white matter lesions related to migraines. She gave me sumatriptan to take.

  • Rena-fauno
    1 year ago

    I’m so glad I found this. About a year ago I started getting phantom smells before my migraines and I honestly thought I was going nuts. The thing is though, I’m one of the very rare people who smells oranges. It’s a very strong, fake kind of orange smell and it makes me feel nauseous every time. The smell lasts for days sometimes a week and drives me crazy. So not all ‘pleasant’ smells are pleasant. However I am glad to know I’m not the only one and I’m glad that I’m not going crazy.

  • Nonny
    1 year ago

    I started getting migraines a few years ago after a head injury. I don’t get them frequently, but am more likely to get them during humid weather and when storms are approaching. They can last for days. I do get visual auras ( coloured dancing lights on the edge of my visual field). I have had problems recently with experiencing a strong odor of bleach when there is none in the environment. In the past, I have also experienced a strong smell of cigarette smoke as well (don’t smoke and don’t allow it around me). I never thought of these as being related to migraines until I looked up phantom odors and migraines were listed as one of the possible causes. I’m getting a strong bleach smell today and the weather conditions are conducive to a potential migraine. I’m really glad to have found this page and to know that this is a possible precursor to a migraine and not something much more serious. I will get it checked out however.

  • Dee112
    10 months ago

    I smell bleach too!

  • shop23
    1 year ago

    I often have strange odors before migraine, usually burnt toast or coffee. Sometimes dirty socks. Sometimes just a hyper acute sense of smell. When I have that aura it’s usually a bad migraine. One doctor didn’t think it had anything to do with the migraines and checked an MRI for a brain tumor.

  • grubbmcc
    1 year ago

    Burned toast. I thought I was going crazy until I finally told my doctor I smelled burned toast before getting terrible vertigo and fatigue. My headaches are rare, but the vertigo can put me out of commission for days.

  • Lynnzie
    1 year ago

    Yes, yes, yes! Today, I kept smelling episodes of a very strong burning smell. My husband could not smell anything. Shortly afterwards, my regular headache became a landslide into a full blown migraine. I found your site because of my google search regarding any correlation. I can completely vouch for this type of aura. You’re welcome to contact me regarding this.

  • Lynnzie
    1 year ago

    I thought it smelled like burning plastic or an electrical fire. Very strong.

  • KNowakowski
    1 year ago

    I’ve had migraines with aura for over 16 years. After having my youngest son, about four years ago, I started periodically smelling cigarette smoke before my migraines came on. This stopped for a long time but is emerging again. My neurologist is considering a diagnosis of migralepsy. He’s feeling like the olfactory hallucinations may be seizure symptoms, and I’ve been on daily topamax (anti-seizure med) to control the headaches. I go back in a few weeks for a follow up, so we’ll see. Hang in there, everyone!

  • cazmonk
    1 year ago

    I’m glad to see this. I’ve suffered with migraines since I was little. A lot comes down to food with me and that time of the month.

    I get the smell of smoke and fags which I hate esp being a non smoker. I get this smell them get a migraine. I have noticed a pattern as of late I get it 2 weeks before I am due on and after so basically I get it 2 weeks a month which sucks. I tend to get it for a few days the max I’ve had it is 3 days. I am going to see my doctor in a few weeks as I can’t stand it any longer and would love the smell to go. I’m glad I’ve seen this post as I’ll take it along with me.

  • litoria76
    2 years ago

    I’ve been having olfactory hallucinations just prior to or at the start of a migraine sporadically for years. I’ve smelled cooking bacon, freshly baked cake, cigarette smoke (freshly lit), smoke, and other things burning. I’m glad to know I’m not the only one with this symptom.

  • ashayes98
    2 years ago

    Yes, finally someone is talking about this. More physicians need to be aware of this & know that the aura smell is real for migraine patients.

  • lcm
    2 years ago

    I am very glad to have found this article. For many years I have had a sometimes faint and other times very strong smell of a combination of mainly cigarette smoke, faint burning meat with an electrical undertone that I thought was the smell of my house, except I would smell it in other places like my car or at work. I even started to think I smelled like that. I never associated it with my migraines which are at times daily. It does go away when the migraines go away, but interestingly enough I never made the connection until recently hearing about olfactory auras. I started tracking it and have now made a direct correlation, the smell starts, gets stronger then within 2 -4 hours a migraine sets in. The smell does not go away until the headache does.

  • tucker
    2 years ago

    This is so weird- I’m always asking people at work (where I always get migraines) if they smell toast, or cigarettes, or cinnamon, or wood smoke, acrid burning smells (like burning rubber or burning chemicals – I’ll go around looking for equipment that is burning), or other weird stuff. I thought I was just really “smell sensitive”. Our next door neighbor smokes outside and I often smell his cigarettes inside our house. Now I’m wondering if that’s not a migraine thing especially since no one else smells it. (OK, I am – I smell stuff in the house that no one else does- stinky pit smell, animal pee, etc- the old nose blind does not apply to me).

    I’ll often get very from smells that don’t agree with me – garbage, chinese food, onions, etc – they all smell so much stronger than they should and one thing leads to another – nausea-> migraine. Maybe this whole time I had the migraine and “smelled” the food first?

  • BikerPuppy
    2 years ago

    I occasionally smell burning electronics, but much more frequently I smell pickles.

  • DonnaFA moderator
    2 years ago

    Hi BikerPuppy! I get the burning wires smell, and run around the house sniffing and feeling walls. I must admit the pickles gave me a giggle 🙂 Thanks for sharing! We’re glad you’re here. -Warmly, Donna (Migraine.com team)

  • momof21
    2 years ago

    I just found this post! Does anyone else smell cigarettes without a headache? I have been smelling cigarette smoke on and off for a few months. But I don’t always have a headache before after or during. I do get migraines & have chronic headaches. I have been on Topamax for almost a year but I think I need to go up on my dose because my headaches seem to be getting worse.

  • jaybee24
    2 years ago

    I kept asking people yesterday if they could smell smoke. No one could. Today, I still smell smoke, and have a migraine on the left side, particularly in my nose, face and eye. I stumbled on this post by googling! Turns out we are not alone!

  • tlc815
    2 years ago

    My aura is smoke/cigarette smoke. I start smelling when no one is near me smoking. I used to think I was going crazy until the migraines started accompanying the smell. My office is No Smoking, my husband has asthma so no one in my family or his smokes. It starts a few days before I have a migraine, but doesn’t always happen before every migraine. I just started having migraines a few years ago around the age of 50. No cause has been determined after 2 neurologists, 2 MRIs and other tests. I think it’s menopause related but who knows. My daughter had them in her teens but at 24 has maybe one per year. She has the visual aura.

  • minfidler
    2 years ago

    I have been complaining about being able to smell a faint smell of cigarette smoke, no one else can smell it, it plagues me, especially as cigarette smoke can trigger a migraine so it seems doubly unfair. I just have just started getting visual migraines with a sense of confusion and being unable to focus properly (I even got my eyes tested), after decades of the other painful kind, at least with the terrible eye pain and vomiting I knew what would happen, this is actually much more upsetting, even if it doesn’t hurt. I already take magnesium. Smells are definitely triggers, I was so happy when I found a perfume I loved that I could use without getting ill from it. Slightly burnt toast is a killer, and somehow my husband chooses to cook fish when I’m sensitive. Yuk. I feel that I am a burden, always being sensitive to something, but he is very kind about it.

  • AlanH
    3 years ago

    I just realized this is what is going on with me. I thought I had an odor, I started showering and cleaning everything and couldn’t find the source of the smell, and couldn’t get rid of it. I have been dealing with this for several months now, just told my neurologist and now I’m getting another MRI. I’ve been on the topiramate and Gabapentin for migraines for approx 6 years, maybe more. I also take a med for a breakthrough med if I have a migraine which helps with the smells temporarily. My eyes also burn like hell when I have these episodes with the smells, the odor is a rubber / man made leather smell, and just gets so strong at times I can’t hardly stand it and my eyes burn so bad I just want to dig them out of my head.
    If I keep active doing things makes controlling this is a lot easier, driving and reading and anything that puts stress on the eyes makes it worse and I try to avoid when I feel any signs coming on.
    Does anybody else out there share any of the same??

  • Lehelle
    3 years ago

    Mine is cigarette smoke – not pleasant at all!!! Never happens in the absence of a migraine.

  • Chloe007
    9 months ago

    When I get migraines everything around me smells really bad and my upper teeth hurt. The bad smell makes my upset stomach worse! I have gone to doctors for years for migraines but have not got much help so I quit going and would just stay in bed for several days until it passed but there were times I went to the emergency room and got a shot to help get rid of the headache

  • jjrae
    3 years ago

    I have no clue how long I have been experiencing olfactory hallucinations because I often smell burning garbage before one hits but I thought that was from the garbage incinerator near by but it closed down last year so this time I knew it was a “phantom smell” and bam migraine appeared. This is day 2 of the migraine and the smell has evolved to black licorice I was thinking I was going crazy, glad to know that I’m not the only one!

  • DonnaFA moderator
    3 years ago

    Hi jjrae, I’m glad this article helped you feel less alone. As you can see, many people in the community share this experience.

    Thanks for being part of the community and for joining the conversation. -Warmly, Donna (Migraine.com team)

  • Joanna Bodner moderator
    3 years ago

    Hi jjrae – I am SO happy that this article provided you with some of piece of mind! While so frustrating to contend with that pesky symptom, it’s always certainly refreshing to know that you are not alone (and not crazy)! 🙂 Thanks for taking the time to share. -Joanna (Migraine.com Team)

  • Ray
    3 years ago

    I have experienced phantosmias for decades, and migraines that waxed and waned for decades. I have never connected the two. Botox provides relief for the migraines, at least for the first 6 weeks or so after injection, yet I have experienced phantosmias with the Botox. My phantosmia episodes often last for several days, as many as 8. It is maddening to continually smell a “diesel-like” smell that no one else can smell. I was not able to take Topamax, so Botox and Fioricet (ugh) are my treatments. My neurologist has done a great deal of work with stem cell treatment for migraines. I am not to the point where I will request stem cell treatment, but as the migraines get more frequent, basically everyday, and the Botox wears off halfway through the 12 week treatment, I may resort to stem cell treatment at some point.

  • DonnaFA moderator
    3 years ago

    Hi Ray! Thanks for being here and sharing your thoughts and experiences. If you elect to try the stem cells, let us know how it goes. -All Best, Donna (Migraine.com team)

  • Yoelisnsj
    3 years ago

    Hi, I’ve been experiencing olfactory hallucinations for six months. My neurologist diagnosed me with migraine three years ago. Hallucinations are not accompanied by migraine attacks but all medical studies order by my neurologist came normal (brain MRI, blood tests and electroencephalogram).
    During the hallucinations I often smell the same too much sweet smell that comes and goes and usually coincides with menstruation. My neurologist prescribed me topamax. Is there anyone that can relate? Thank you.

    my neurologist prescribed me topama

  • Lamamama
    3 years ago

    I get frequent occurrences of smelling things like diesel exhaust and dirty ashtrays. I’ve learned to deal with it but it is extremely frustrating and nauseating. I don’t get typical migraine pain, just kind of a foggy feeling and I just want to go to sleep. I will try the magnesium.

  • Kristine
    3 years ago

    The last time I saw my doctor I was recounting a fifteen day period during which I was experiencing a migraine every day and night which, while not uncommon, was also accompanied by phantom smells. First it was tuna fish, then it was an ammonia smell like something coming from a litter box. I searched my room trying to figure out where the smells were coming from but there was nothing there. My doctor attributed to an aura but I felt as though I was going crazy! It happened again about a week after seeing him and this time I smelled what I thought was a dumpster.

  • Ray
    3 years ago

    Your description of diesel exhaust and dirty ashtrays is exactly what I experience. I have never talked to anyone who has also experienced this. In the beginning, I truly thought I must be going crazy!

  • Mimi
    3 years ago

    Yeah!!!! I get strange looks when I tell doctors I don’t have a visual aura but I smell my Dad’s pipe right before a migraine! This article confirms I’m not an anomaly! I always got migraines when around smokers. I’ve been taking Topomax as a prophylactic for about a year and have noticed a big difference. So happy to know there was a study. Hope they do more research and get this included in the IHS criteria.

  • Finnuala
    4 years ago

    I was so happy to see this article, everyone was telling me that I was going mad! I figured out about two years ago that the smells that I was experiencing were linked with migraine. It usually starts about two to three days prior to a migraine and can often last for up to six days. The odour is nearly as bad as the migraine, a constant smell of rotting and burning that causes a constant feeling of nausea. I had acupuncture done and found it helps lessen the odours, often the smell not occurring during a migraine which is a great relief after 10 years.

  • Jess
    4 years ago

    Before the headache started today and during, I have been smelling the scent of burnt toast and burning plastic every few minutes for the past day or so. My speech became very confusing to my boyfriend as I was attempting to explain the symptom. I’m glad to know that I’m not the only person who has experienced olfactory symptoms during migraines.

  • Jenny
    4 years ago

    Goodness, yes, and what a relief it was to found out that others experienced the same.

    It’s a bone of contention between me and my manager, because while I do sometimes smell things that aren’t there, my migraines can also be triggered by certain types of perfume. If I ask him to remind new staff not to spray perfume in the office, he will say he can’t smell anything – but he’s a smoker! We end up needing an adjudicator over whether the smell exists haha

  • noodle
    4 years ago

    never has a migrain come on so fast with me before!! I lost all vision in my left eye in 10 secs max !but the strong cigarette smell is making me feel very sick ! Am layed down now covering the eye with pillow …..

  • Mrs M
    4 years ago

    Smelling cigarette smoke before and during my migraine currently. I do have phantosmia and frequently smell things that no one else smells but this is the first time I have associated the phantosmia with a migraine. Very unpleasant to say the least.

  • 284q0c1
    4 years ago

    Whenever I’ve had migraines I’ve had olfactory hallucinations that have preceded it among other signs. The first sign is a period of intense concentration and followed by the smells, then the chills, then feeling cold, then the zigzags which spread all over my vision and when it finally dissipates I get nauseous and I feel the migraine slowly setting in. And even though I feel the migraine coming a couple of hours before it actually hits, I just don’t seem bothered because I’m put in this weird emotional state where I just don’t feel bothered by anything.

    I think because of just how painful the migraines are, the routine of it has been imprinted onto my brain. So even though they can be very subtle, I am very aware of the signs that precede it.

    My migraines are infrequent however, they are just the worst and I don’t think I’ve experienced any pain worse.

  • biango
    4 years ago

    I wonder if anyone also experiences food tasting not the way it is supposed to be… i remember 1 year ago i ate a pizza and it strongly tasted like fish (i had made that pizza myself and i did not put fish on it!!).. half an hour later a 3 day migraine attack started

  • Keith
    4 years ago

    I have never had a migraine headache or flashing lights, but I have had several olfactory migraines. It is a constant smell, similar to cleaning chemicals or metallic, from the moment I wake until I go to sleep. I can taste it as well. But the smell does not exist for anyone else. Luckily these symptoms only last a couple weeks usually.

    The first time this started I was frantic trying to find the source of this cleaning chemical (like Pinesol) when no one else could smell it. My problem lasted 4 weeks before it faded away. A couple years later it came back and lasted a couple weeks.

    The third time it came back, I visited an ear, nose, throat specialist and he explained that what I was experiencing was something rare (especially in men) called Phantosmia or “Phantom Smell”. It was essentially a migraine of the olfactory nerve. He said the smell can be literally anything that your brain chooses – rotting meat, smoke, flowers, poop or chemical smells. It can last a day, a month – or it may never go away. Not a pleasant thought!

    He suggested that there has been some success at eliminating phantosmia through taking large does of magnesium and multi B vitamins. I took both. 1000 mg of magnesium a day plus the multi B complex. After 2 weeks the phantom smell faded.

    A year later it came back. I took the magnesium and the B complex and 10 days later it was gone. Another year passed and then two weeks ago it returned. I had no B complex, so I took the magnesium pills and in 10 days the smell has faded.

    This is not a faint smell. It is very powerful, annoying, and is there most of the time. I can taste it in my throat and smell it as soon as I open my eyes in the morning. But I know now that it is only my brain’s hallucination. This is the what a true olfactory migraine is like. I’ve never had a typical migraine in my life.

    It is a very uncommon problem, and not widely studied or treated. Effective treatment is uncertain, but the magnesium worked well for me. I often wonder if it would have faded on it’s own if I didn’t take the pills. Thankfully “the smell” is gone now and hopefully will not be back for a long time.

  • woolymittens
    5 years ago

    I used to worry I had a brain tumor or something because I would smell smoke where it wasn’t there. I knew it wasn’t real smoke because it didn’t irritate my nose/eyes/throat. But I could SMELL it!
    It wasn’t until a few years later that I realized within hours of “smelling” the smoke, I would get a migraine.

  • lll
    5 years ago

    I have this smell 90% of the time, it gets so strong it makes me want to vomit. When I’m outdoors it’s not as bad.

  • Ray
    3 years ago

    Yes, the smell is much better or even gone if I go outdoors. It immediately returns when I enter my home or car, or any building. I am increasing my MgO2 dosage.

  • Finnuala
    4 years ago

    I found that acupuncture relieved my symptoms greatly

  • Keith
    4 years ago

    Please read my post about the magnesium that has effectively relieved my olfactory migraine.

  • Christi
    5 years ago

    This has helped me I thought I was going crazy .. I have Dandy Walker Variant which I have a cyst on my brain that’s benign but causes migraines and other issues.. But the last few months my migraines have worsened and I smell cigarette smoke/burning smells and would keep asking my family if they smell it they all would give me a look and say no .. This helps me but I’m curious it has now come to when I smell it I get a slight burning in my nose .. Is this normal with it?

  • M L Morgan
    5 years ago

    I have smelled coffee at work when there is no coffee. I have also smelled matches burning and looked around the house to see who is playing with matches, and then realized no one else has been in the house but me and no matches have been used. This happened last evening, and I woke up during the night with a horrible migraine, which I am still trying to get rid of. I didn’t realize this could be a sign. Smells do trigger some of my migraines. Some perfumes and stargazer Lillie’s, and the aroma of marijuana are the worst. I am a nurse, and have had to adjust my pt assignment due to support person’s smoking breaks!

  • CJD
    5 years ago

    I’ve been having these for years. Only today did I associate it with migraines. I have visual migraines as well as olfactory migraines and regular migraines. I even have migraines that have as the only symptom an extremely cold nose. I looked it up and that is a real thing. Anyway, lately I have been cleaning this place like crazy because of the embarrassment that it smelled like garbage. I asked several people if they smelled it and they didn’t. It is nauseating at times. I finally, after having two visual and one nose migraine, associated it with migraine. I even washed all the cushions on my couch and pillows and sprayed the underlying foam with Nature’s Choice TWICE in the last month!! Years ago my internist put me on one 10 mg Lexapro at night and that stopped the pain of migraines. But, I still have visual migraines with no pain. I finally made the connection and found this blog. Thank you so much for posting this.

  • Keith
    4 years ago

    Please read my post about the magnesium that has effectively relieved my olfactory migraine.

  • MahtaMouse
    5 years ago

    It took me years to finally put 2 + 2 together. I sometimes smell a sickeningly sweet smell that for some reason I associate with death. I would run around the house looking for a dead mouse (had one once under the kitchen sink cupboard behind the kick board) or anything “dead” asking everyone over and over if they “smelled that” and didn’t they “smell that”, and eventually the Mother Of All Migraines would hit and hit HARD. Now that I know it’s a precursor to a migraine, if I smell that horrid smell I take 2-3 naproxen STAT and grab a double shot espresso. It’s the only thing that can help stave off a migraine if taken early enough. The last time I had this smell hit, I spent a full week taking my beloved naproxen every 4 hours ’round the clock as that smell would return every 4 hours. After a week, it was finally gone.

    I may have had other smells like something burning or burnt, but haven’t associated them with migraines… as I said, it took me years to realise that the sickening sweet smells were false and not really there and were like an early warning system.

    As a side note, my boyfriend is worried about my liver, etc. due to the amount of naproxen I take during a migraine…

  • Ray
    3 years ago

    As a retired pharmacist, I am concerned about your liver and your GI tract with all that naproxen. Please consider reducing the dosages in both quantity and frequency.

  • Keith
    4 years ago

    Please read my post about the magnesium that has effectively relieved my olfactory migraine.

  • HorseAndCarriage
    5 years ago

    It has happened to me only a couple times, but I have suddenly smelled maple syrup when there is none around (i.e. sitting alone watching TV). It only lasts a minute or two, but still feels oh so strange!

  • Vanessa
    5 years ago

    When I’m having a bad run of migraines then I notice a cigarette burning smell it really makes me feel sick. Once I get over the attacks the smell seems to go away.

  • Katherine Lusty
    5 years ago

    There have been multiple times that I’ve had a phantom smell precede an attack. Normally it smells like burning or melted plastic. I’m not even sure where I picked up that particular smell in my memory but it usually comes right before some of my worst attacks.

  • Hannah H.
    5 years ago

    I woke up smelling something rotting/ garbage and would probably have never realized that this was just an olfactory hallucination if I had not gone several different places today and noticed that I kept smelling it and then it got worse just before my migraine started. I wonder if I have had these auras before without realizing it.

  • Keith
    4 years ago

    Please read my post about the magnesium that has effectively relieved my olfactory migraine.

  • Hope
    6 years ago

    This is more common to me then the lovely silver blue lights I sometimes see. When I read about most people smelling smoke, or burning it made me cry because it made me feel less alone. Often when I am at work,where no one smokes, I will need to ask a co-worker if they smell something burning or a cigarette smell etc. if no one does (once in a blue moon it is a current smell like someone burning toast in the kitchen/break room) then I know I better take my meds ASAP. One sweet lady will even say to me,”oh no, take your medicine quick!”. I also very smell sensitive as a trigger issue. Yesterday I had to tell someone their perfume made me ill. I hate that making me feel like I am being rude, and make sure to tell them I am sorry it is not against them but out of my control. Still that seems to be a delicate issue.

  • Barmorio
    6 years ago

    Hello everybody. Olfactory symptoms have always been part of my own migraine attacks, whether before, during (always), and sometimes after a migraine attack. There is usually exacerbation of odors and smells, and there were times when strong odors have themselves triggered my own migraine attacks. Moreover, I have been going recently over odd situations: I smell some odor somewhere – usually strong or bad, or any other odor – and this negatively smelt odor keeps on coming back afterwards in many different places:for instance, I smell the odor in some closet (only me anyway), and then I do not smell it anymore afterwards in this same closet. Also,I had to take recently a very well known and effective antibiotic, and its smell has so much been exacerbated that I was not able to eat during a whole month a lot of food and meals(including bread) because their odor was so pretty much nauseating to my nose.
    Thanks for your article, as it draws attention to a quite rarely addressed migraine phenomenon.

  • Teri-Robert author
    6 years ago

    Barmorio,
    Thanks for sharing your experience. Sorry you usually smell bad odors. If we have to have this symptom, it seems only fair that we should at least smell something pleasant. 🙂

    You’re very welcome for the article. You raise a good point that olfactory hallucinations aren’t often addressed.

    Teri

  • Lily
    6 years ago

    Hello, I am just coming out of a migraine (exhausted!) and have found that my sense of smell has been extremely sensitive for the duration. This is a normal symptom for me, but this time I thought I was smelling a musty beer smell which is new for me. It seemed to be everywhere, even in my fresh washing! My partner couldn’t detect it at all, making me suspect it was some form of miscommunication in my brain.
    My migraines are always accompanied by an extremely heightened sense of smell, and are always on the left side of my head.
    Thanks for your article, it’s very insightful for me!
    Lily

  • Julie
    7 years ago

    I smell burnt toast within usually half an hour of being hit with a migraine. I say hit witha migraine because unless I wake up with it, which thankfully is usual, I pass out for ten or so minutes before coming to with a full blown migraine. Scares the hell out of my husband. I also go blind in my right eye ocassionally.

  • Nancy Harris Bonk moderator
    7 years ago

    Hi Julie,

    On rare occasions, I will smell smoke before a migraine. It’s not cigarette smoke or as if something is burning, rather a “smokey” sort of smell…..

  • Debbie Fister
    8 years ago

    Yes! For the past 7 or 8 months I smell cigarette smoke just prior and during a migraine. Last night it lasted an hour or more.

  • Krys9980
    2 years ago

    I am glad that I am not the only one that smells cigarette smoke before a Migraine! I am a non smoker and this drives me nuts. I sometimes smell burnt electrical wiring too. In the past I had thought an aura was always visual, until my neurologist at the VA explained olfactory aura to me. Now I know that I am not alone!!

  • Mark Nelson
    8 years ago

    I have been getting severe headaches for the last month or so. Recently, I have been smelling coffee where no coffee is to be found. I was driving home one night from work at 3 am. My drive is a little over an hour. During the entire trip, I kept smelling burnt coffee. This has happened a couple of times, usually a burnt smell but mostly coffee. I had the same experience last night. I awoke at 3 am to the smell of coffee. I have a migraine this morning. I would rate it a 4 out of 10.

    My headaches have been really unusual. If I tip my head back I loose all sense of up or down. At times, as I stand up, I immediately loose my sense of balance. This weird sensation has been making me nauseated all of the time.

  • Tracey Jackson
    8 years ago

    I have tried for 3 decades to convince health care providers that I get “fireflies and burnt laundry smell” as a prodromal stage of severe debilitating vascular migraine , followed by crippling pain and right eye blindness as well as slurred speech.but they still treat me as a “drug seeker”. My migraines last from a few seriously uncomfortable hour to seven days of blinding incapacitation. WTF do I have to do to prove that I feel as though my head is being split slowly by a crowbar?

  • Elaine Gross
    8 years ago

    I frequently experience smelling unpleasant odors when having a migraine. It makes me very nauseous. I end up almost always having to take phenergan for the nausea. The odor is usually something like burning food. Like burnt pizza – yuck!

  • Shannon Chapman
    8 years ago

    I found this article to be really interesting…The past couple of times I had a migraine, I thought I was going nuts. I seems to smell natural gas every where I went. And I don’t know how many times I asked my husband if he smelled the same thing I did, as far as thinking something was on fire. As soon as my other symptoms went away, so did the smells.

  • Tami Labul
    8 years ago

    I have this a lot (or did before my most recent med change). Mine smelled like burning tires and garbage. I would always ask, does anyone smell that? And no one ever did. I begged for an MRI because I was sure it was too bizarre to just be an aura but it was.

  • Keith
    4 years ago

    Please read my post about the magnesium that has effectively relieved my olfactory migraine.

  • Monica Dominguez-Rodriguez
    8 years ago

    I started to notice when I get a migraine my sense of smell becomes hightened & my upper nostrils have a mild burning feel. But the last two days I’ve been suffering from a migraine I’ve been smelling a stinky sock or popcorn smell.

  • Beth
    8 years ago

    I have olfactory hallucinations often about 20% relating to a migraine. It was chili this month. I have brain damage too. When I first met my spouse he smelled like chocolate chip cookies all the time… take it away Tina Turner.

  • Diane Doyle Hucks
    8 years ago

    I always smell wire burning. It makes me so nauses. I hate these miagrains. they have taken over my life..

  • Shannon Lea
    8 years ago

    my speech gets messed up and I start stuttering or talking backwards.

  • Shannon Lea
    8 years ago

    I have to be careful going into starbucks because of the hazelnut coffee or vanilla bean. also anything vanilla or hazelnut candles or air freshners..

  • Laura Watson
    8 years ago

    I either smell burning or rotting food. It’s a sure sign an attack is on its way.

  • Amanda Jennings
    8 years ago

    I always get olfactory hallucinations with migraines. I usually smell things like sour milk and coffee, and am very sensitive to strong smells like bleach. I get auditory hallucinations pretty often as well; I usually hear murmuring and bells ringing.

  • Karen Marlowe
    8 years ago

    Yes, I get olfactory aura with my migraines. I can often tell I am going to get one because of them. Usually, they are not unpleasant smells, just really strong. Funny thing is, my friend has epilepsy and she gets olfactory aura before a seizure…

    I also have a certain amount of dysphasia, but never visual aura.

  • Jessica Madore
    8 years ago

    I almost always smell things that are not there. I will ask someone with me if they smell something and when they say no, I know that it’s an indication that I have a migraine coming on.

  • Pamela Patterson
    8 years ago

    I would tell my doc all the time for almost 15 years now , I smell ammonia before a real bad migraine which usually lasts 3-7 days. he said he had never heard of this and that was the end of it.i have paid such close attention to the things my body does with migraines for over 30 years glad to see articles helping me understand what I always new was happening. thank you

  • Janene Zielinski
    8 years ago

    Yes, I’ve had that hallucination a few times – but rarely. Usually the “really bad smell” like maybe diesel fuel or something burning. I have another hallucination that is more common for me – but I have never heard anyone ever mention before. I sometimes get the sensation that I am experiencing an earthquake – but no one else feels anything. Now, I have been through 5 or 6 real earthquakes – so I know what a REAL one feels like. I am usually the first person in the room to notice the REAL earthquake. But, many other times I feel an earthquake and everyone else thinks I’m nuts. Most of the time I don’t even bother to say anything until I see other people freaking out. Someone has told me it may be a sign of intracranial pressure or something? I am relieved to hear others have smelled stuff that wasn’t there… that makes me feel a little less weird. That’s what I like about this website. It’s nice to know I’m not alone in my strangeness 🙂

  • Louise M. Houle
    8 years ago

    Yes, but only ONCE. I was feeling a migraine coming on and knew that I shouldn’t eat the Korean dish I ordered take out; but I was afraid if I didn’t eat, the migraine would be worse later. The dish smelled awful. I kept asking my friends if they smelled it too, but all of them said it smelled great. I had had the dish before and knew what it should smell like. I unfortunately ate it only to throw it up later. It was as if my body was warning me not to eat it. I couldn’t believe how gross it smelled. Silly me. Live and learn! BTW, I have migraines WITHOUT aura.

  • Jill Oglesby Dehlin
    8 years ago

    Yes, my olfactory hallucination smells like B.O.. It happens rarely (<5% of the time I have a migraine).
    The first time it happened, I blamed my husband who was sitting next to me. Because I also had phonophobia at the time (sound sensitivity) I thought I had "super spidey" powers of perception from the migraine. It's happened many times since then, and I now know it means that I am at the beginning of a migraine.

  • Christy Hawkins Grilliette
    8 years ago

    I’ve had 2 hallucinations with only 1 smell which was licorice. I hate licorice!

  • Stacy Phillips
    8 years ago

    Oh Lynne, that’s terrible, I am so sorry! Mine is usually band-aids, the first time I smelled it, I was in my office, I knew a migraine was coming on, and all of a sudden I smelled band-aids.

  • Lynne Schultz
    8 years ago

    yep, mine is nasty-you know the way a mouse smells when it dies in a wall of your house? That’s mine (lucky me) Occaisionally I will think I smell bacon, but most often it’s dead mouse-one of the many joys that is migraine for me 🙂

  • Pauline Lowman
    8 years ago

    I am not aware of phantom smells. I believe this is due in part to the fact that I have a heightened awareness of smells already and that odors are a direct and immediate trigger for me.

  • Michelle Edmondson
    8 years ago

    This makes sense to me because I feel my sight and hearing become more sensitive right before a migraine, and I do smell things that my husband cannot.

  • Marietta Johnson
    8 years ago

    I had never thought about olfactory aura symptoms (I have pretty much everything else that can happen to you during the aura happens to me) until a co-worker at my last job was telling me that she had figured out that the last three or four times she had experienced a migraine, she was going around her house trying to clean this horrible rotten egg/wet dog smell that no one else seemed to notice. It clicked for her when she noticed this smell that no one smelled at work, the same smell she had smelled at home, and ended up with a migraine. I know I seem to be more sensitive to existing scents or odors, but I haven’t noticed myself hallucinating an odor.

  • Christina the Bookworm
    8 years ago

    Wow! Finally somebody has done a study on this! Just yesterday I was in the car with my husband and was ranting about the odor of nail polish. We have a hardware store so I was certain something he had transported spilled. After rolling down the window, breathing the fresh air, it turns out it was his chewing gum. I never did get a migraine, but I was armed and ready with medication!

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