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Osmophobia

Osmophobia. That’s the word used to describe the sensitivity to smell that often accompanies migraine attacks. In it’s strictest definition, osmophobia means a fear or aversion to odors, which is particularly applicable when you consider that those of us with odor-triggered migraines also fear the attack that is nearly certain to follow particular or strong odors.

There’s definitely an element of phobia with what I think of as my worst odor triggers, artificial rose and artificial cinnamon. These triggers don’t just bring on a migraine, the smell of them sends me into a panic as I desperately try to get away from them. Even after I’ve escaped the source of the smell, it seems to linger until I shower and do laundry.

A recent craft store visit filled me with dread at it’s cinnamon smell — a smell that pervades craft and grocery stores from September through December — I questioned why I have such a strong aversion to cinnamon (and rose) when practically any odor, even ones I enjoy, can trigger a migraine for me.

Like so many deep-seated emotional responses, this one is rooted in childhood. The first horrendous headache I can remember having came in fifth grade when my teacher propped open the door to the break room, which had been doused in artificial rose-scented air freshener. Throughout junior high and high school, I have vivid memories of horrible headaches whenever classmates ate Fireball candies in class. These “headaches” were actually migraines, of course, I just didn’t know the word for them at the time.

These two scents are not only migraine triggers for me, they are the first scents I can remember ever triggering migraine attacks. Artificial rose and artificial cinnamon represent the first times I remember feeling crippling pain, a pain that would eventually become so frequent and severe that it would alter every aspect of my life. No wonder those odors fill me with an irrational terror.

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

  • n8smith
    1 year ago

    How do you get over your fear of smells?

    I saw a biofeedback specialist (Erik Peper) who said that I hyperventilate way too often which I now admit is true, and told me to note when I gasp. It seems my main reason for gasping is a fear of smells even in my own home where there’s no smell I still do it and I also gasp due to my congestion where it feels somewhat blocked to take full breaths (I’ve seen multiple ENTs who say it’s just migraine symptoms).

    I assume one should push through and keep remembering to breathe from your stomach until that becomes a habit.

    And when one goes out and doesn’t want to risk being triggered, then maybe rub vicks (though I’ve read it can be addictive and the concern for it and essential oils is that you don’t want them getting in your mouth in case you lick your lips). It seems toothpaste is the best thing to rub as then it’s not toxic if you like your lips accidentally. I’ve read someone wears mask when they leave their personal office (even in the walk to the printer), car or home but that seems like one will get dependent on a mask and never adjust to smells. Though I guess you’ll still smell things through one of the doctor’s mask and it can allow you to ease into smells.

    Curious if anyone has any thoughts!

  • fvwoo1
    3 years ago

    I would like any suggestions how to keep the smells away. I am on day 4 of school and already sick from the smell. I take Botox shots already. Nasonex and Loradane daily. Scentsy’s are making me so sick.

  • Joanna Bodner moderator
    3 years ago

    Hi there, I am so terribly sorry to read how much scents are trigger for you! How do you respond to essentials oils like lavender? In this article, some members have found them to neutralize smells they are sensitive to. If permitted in the classroom, could you use a a diffuser with lemongrass? How about the scent of Vicks? They have plug-ins available w/scent pads. I realize these suggested scents may too be trigger for you, but still wanted to make mention.

    Additionally, I thought you might be able to relate well to this story published by one of our community members titled “Scents Send Me Into Rapid Descent” & that they make mention of unfortunately resorting to wearing a mask most of the time.

    I am so sorry that you are already contending with this & only just recently being back in the classroom! I truly hope you are able to manage ok through the school year!

    Good luck & keep us posted if you can about how things are going.

    Take care,
    Joanna (Migraine.com Team)

  • marti
    6 years ago

    Osmophobia – what a great word. Bleach does it for me – one tiny whiff and I’m hit with an immediate, agonizing, hide under the blanket, no noise, no movement, 2 day migraine. It’s so bad that I go home whenever the cleaning crew at work comes in early. The smell of bleach isn’t unpleasant, it makes me very, very sick and so many people don’t understand. (Fortunately for me, my boss does.)

  • fossil
    6 years ago

    I also find the term osmophobia an insult to those of us who are walking around, just fine and then are assaulted by the invasive smells of things…perfume, cinnamon in stores (I totally relate to this and thought I was the only one with this problem), smoke, the smell of wood burning, alcohol sanitizing hand stuff, lotion, cleaning supplies, etc. etc. People who don’t have migraines triggered by odors don’t understand – it’s not like we can walk away from the source of the smell. Once we’re hit with the smell it’s too late…for me, it usually sends me into about a 12 hour or longer episode of increasing pain, nausea, brain fog and other neurological symptoms (weakness in my legs and arms, dizziness, irritability, etc.). I keep thinking that a miracle will happen and I’ll get better; I wasn’t always cursed with this problem. A bout with a nasty sinus infection or pertussis seemed to trigger it (I’m not sure)…anyone else have an illness that caused the onset of their “osmophobia”? Thanks for the supportive article Kerrie!!

  • fvwoo1
    3 years ago

    I just read your reply and this is my exact problem. I work at a school that everyone puts out Scentsy. I am on the second day of trying to keep a sinus infection away. I love smells, but hate the migraines. It’s taken forever to figure this out. Have you came up with any ideas how to block smells?

  • anniedooday12
    6 years ago

    I wish I could narrow it down to know what smells were a trigger, but there seem to be way to many! There are absolutely no perfumes or sprays I can wear, or colognes my husband can wear, he keeps his at work and sprays there but on the rare occasion I have to drive his car I will get one from his seat belt! Movie theatres, air planes, grocery stores, any public place really that I have to stand near someone with their strong perfume or cologne or walk through their smoke is a ticking time bomb for me 🙁 plus I am a hair stylist, 90% of the products out there I cannot use because of there scents, but fortunately I found a company whose products in their entire line do not! Now I even work for them as an educator because I love them so much!! It just sucks that smells are such a trigger for me because you can avoid lots of things, foods, sleep, dehydration, but when someone sits next to you on a full flight with strong perfume on…. what do you do???

  • fossil
    6 years ago

    I totally relate; my life is getting super small and isolated. I can barely go out in public. I am not a “neurotic” person. This is so real and so frustrating. Why can’t we get better?

  • Shawna Jennings
    6 years ago

    Cinnamon wood smoke cigarette smoke and certain perfumes and sometimes coffee trigger my migraines…I was diagnosed with migraines when i was 2…. im 55 now and have them at least 2-3 times a week..i am currently on disability because of them along eith depression….habent tried botox yet but considering it….have tried many drugs…etc not much help…any suggestions out there?? :)…

  • Nola
    6 years ago

    Yes! Go for the botox. It is not a panacea, but it MAY reduce the frequency of the migraines. I’ve been doing the botox injections every three months for a couple of years now. I’ve gone from over 20 headache days a month to 10-12. No, it’s not a cure-all, but it does seem to help somewhat.

  • Sara
    6 years ago

    I, too, experience “Osmophobia” with Rose and artificial vanilla. Often, others thing vanilla is a “safe” scent that won’t cause problems because it’s not a floral scent (much like you and the Cinnamon). Not only does vanilla cause the headache, it makes me physically ill and noxious.

    I have to say, I find this term disappointing. Physiologically speaking a Phobia is “often recognized as irrational.” Using a term with the word “phobia” in it, again discredits our condition. The pain and discomfort we experience is not irrational, therefore, wanting to avoid triggers is not an irrational behavior. The same problem exists with the term Photophobia. While the Medical term for photophobia purposefully states that this is not seen as irrational, they still use the same terminology.

  • BethBlue
    6 years ago

    Your article is critical at this time of year. Recently, I went to purchase a wreath for my family’s front door, and found the smell of the garden center extremely soothing and calming. The drive home with the balsam in my car was wonderful, because it scented my car. Meanwhile, is there anything worse than the overmarketing of fragrance during the holidays? From air fresheners to the “smell of the season,” we are encouraged to “plug it in” and make our surroundings and our bodies smell like something artificially sweet and nauseating. Even seeing a commercial for some of these pain-inducing bombs can make me sick to my stomach! “J’Adore Dior?” I think not! I just wish others understood — that’s the hardest part.

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