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Oh, My Sensitive, Sensitive Nose

Most people with Migraine are at least somewhat sensitive to smells. This is called osmophobia. It isn’t actually a sensitive nose that is the problem, but an overly sensitive brain. Some patients are extremely sensitive all of the time, where others are sensitive only during the throes of a Migraine attack. I started out my Migrainey life as the latter, but eventually became sensitive to varying degrees, to varying odors that now affect me nearly each day.

In my younger days, before Migraine took over my life, I was a perfume model. The job of a perfume model is to look amazing while walking around a store to introduce customers to a fragrance or two by offering them samples that are sprayed on a small strip of fiber blended paper, or a small pretty tied sachet they can hang onto as a keepsake. The pay for this job was really amazing and remains the best money I have ever made in my life. I LOVED that job!

Migraineurs reading this won’t be surprised to learn that my career as a fragrance model didn’t last very long. I received lots of compliments from those who hired me and worked with me. Unfortunately though, while working I kept getting horribly, violently ill. I liked some of the fragrances, but others were really awful, and I never knew until I showed up for work what I was going to have to carry around with me all day long. I’m not sure it would have mattered though, because even a nice fragrance isn’t nice anymore after 8 hours of spraying it next to your body.

Several times I went to the bathroom for *lunch* where I took acetaminophen or ibuprofen, then sat exhausted in the corner praying not to vomit, wondering why the meds weren’t helping me. I also spent some lunch breaks at home so I could go to bed for a half hour or so, then be so terribly sick I couldn’t even get out of bed let alone return to work. Surprisingly they kept asking me to come back, something I appreciated. Despite the money however, I just couldn’t bring myself to let them down again or “volunteer” to get so sick again, and I stopped taking the jobs.

I don’t often think of my days as a perfume model, so I guess it’s not too surprising that it took until this afternoon and a conversation about working at a cosmetics counter before the light bulb suddenly went on over my head, I put 2 + 2 together and realized very suddenly what happened all those years ago. Oh, if I’d only known then what I know now…

Back then, I didn’t recognize what was happening to me as anything other than a weird recurrent flu that hit only when I was working in the store. I had no aura, and up until that time, all my Migraines (I thought) started with a brilliant, blinding visual aura. As time went along, I began to suffer Migraine without aura too, and I now realize that this is what was happening to me while handing out smelly sachets to smiling customers.

I’ve had Migraine nearly all my life, but I am forever learning new things about my old experiences.

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.


  • ibl111
    3 years ago

    It is embarrassing to have to get up and move from your seat at church, the movies or even the doctors office. People don’t understand how awful it is to suddenly be gripped with a headache because of their perfume or aftershave.
    I don’t understand why any althcare center would even allow their employees to douse themselves before coming to work.

  • Crystalrz4
    6 years ago

    I too am bothered by so very many scents, perfumes, and the like. What I do not understand is why 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 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.

  • Nicola
    6 years ago

    Since my migraines became chronic about 2 years ago, I am very sensitive to many smells, particularly artificial smells such as perfumes and cleaning products. One of the worst for me that I don’t think anyone else has mentioned, is the smell of coffee. I can’t stand to be anywhere near that smell; it instantly makes me feel very ill. I can smell it just walking near a coffee shop where people with me can’t. I also can’t abide scented candles, pot purri, air fresheners and the like. At one of my favourite department stores I have to go in and out through the back door as they have perfumes by the front door! When I go out I have to think carefully about where I go. But it’s not often I am well enough to go out anyway.

  • Jan Piller
    6 years ago

    I’ve always been sensitive to most aerosols and smoke but recently a couple other things have been added. Fragrances from cream and Satay Peanut Sauce my husband uses. (what the heck is that all about????)

  • seagypsy
    6 years ago

    I have always, always had a “sensitive” nose, but it got much worse during my first pregnancy and has stuck around since. My husband swears I can smell 1 part per billion of the bleach he uses to clean in our house, but at least it no longer makes me vomit. I wish he wouldn’t use it at all. I can smell the “no-smell” cleaning liquid 8 hours after he’s used it and rinsed and rinsed and rinsed. I cannot stand the odor of taco seasoning and can smell it 3 days after he’s cooked with it. I have one fragrance I can stand and I never wear it. I have to admit there are very few smells that cause a migraine, but when I have a migraine smells can certainly make it so much worse. I so often smell things that other people do not; I wish I could somehow make money off the “gift/curse” 🙂 .

  • Dee
    7 years ago

    Heightened sense of smell was the first sign of migraine for me at the age of 20. No headache, no visual aura’s, just heightened smell. I too didnt know what was causing it at the time and doctor’s were also baffled by this symptom. Osmophobia is not often listed as one of the symptoms of migraine. A few years later, all the other symptoms of migraine showed up (nausea, head pain and visual). Then I got properly diagnosed by a neurologist. He perfomed an EEG to rule out epilepsy. I guess as migraineurs, we are Extra-Sensory Beings. My husband finds it fascinating that I can tell him what the neighbours are cooking for dinner 🙂

  • Ellen Schnakenberg author
    7 years ago

    Dee – Your comment made me smile 🙂 Thank you! I like that you used the phrase Extra-Sensory Beings. It kind of goes along with a post I did a while back: Migraine Superheroes

  • Mgodzik
    7 years ago

    I’ve had migraines since before age 11. At their worst they were several times a week and lasted up to 3 days. When pregnant they got to be a daily occurrence. The aura at first was jagged wavy lights, now called an ocular migraine. After years of doctors and meds I’ve become aware of my triggers. They include, stress, cheese, red wine, some bacons, chocolate, and weather changes. But with in the past year I’ve noticed that before many migraines I’ll smell “bacon”. But no bacon is being cooked or even in the area. I guess after 47 years of enduring migraines I’ve realized they are constantly evolving. Thank god for meds and continuing development in treatments of these headaches.

  • Ellen Schnakenberg author
    7 years ago

    Mgodzik – You’re not alone, as you can see! I hope this article was helpful in accepting this strange part of our disease 🙂

    I notice that you used the phrase *Ocular Migraine*. Please take a moment and read this short post about ocular Migraine. Most patients are shocked to learn that the term really isn’t a correct name at all!

  • afinkel
    7 years ago

    I used to work in a large hospital. The perfumes worn by my colleagues triggered a migraine with nausea so often that I finally contacted our occupational health department about having a no scent policy. Perhaps they had already considered one, but within a year we had a reduced scent policy. Not perfect, but a good start. The education of staff was the next challenge as many who wore fragrances thought they smelled lovely and that it couldn’t possibly bother anyone. So,it often fell on me to tell the offender directly that their perfume was bothering me and if that didn’t work, to let my boss know. I became known as someone to stay away from. One nurse argued with me every time – she just couldn’t understand the problem. It wasn’t easy but it was far better than suffering! I know there are a lot more places now with no scent policies. One day, hopefully it will be universal!

  • Sara
    6 years ago

    We have a “no scent” policy where I work, but still people come in wearing perfume all the time. It makes me so sick. I’ve become ridiculously sensitive to all kinds of smells. Then there’s the people who don’t use perfume, but use body wash that smells just as bad. I don’t complain because I don’t want to be that person, but I would I could file it under workers’ compensation so I could get paid for my FMLA time.

  • Ellen Schnakenberg author
    7 years ago

    Congratulations on no doubt being a small part in the changes that were made in your hospital angief!! Think of all the other people you have inadvertently helped, without even knowing them 😀 As a patient who is frequently assaulted in doctor’s offices and hospitals by these smelly folks… I salute you!

  • Beverly Militello
    7 years ago

    I can tell a migraine is starting when I can smell the handsoap, laundry detergent, or any fragrances start to get strong. My family didn’t believe me at first and used to laugh. I also start sneezing with the osmophobia. It took me forever to convince them to stop using things with fragrances in them. I still have to remind them, especially anything floral.

  • jeannie
    7 years ago

    I know that I have had osmophobia for a very long time. It was while I was going for the third time to a certain mall with my friend that I realized it was a trigger for a migraine. The first two times I had an aura and we had to drive the 20 miles back home. On the third time as were walking in the door I realized they had their ‘scent’ or their smell being sprayed into the mall. Ding,ding,ding!

    Public bathrooms are like a horror movie for me. I never know what is behind the door! I will bring a tissue with me and stuff it up my nose letting the rest hang over my mouth to keep from breathing it in.

    Well once at work I walked right out, still stuffed up! Had to LOL, but obviously this not a fun way to live.

    My ex thought it was my way of getting attention. Once we took his truck, which always had that dang tree hanging from the rear view. Usually opening my window and hanging my head out like a dog staved off my reaction. This time by the time we got home I literally stumbled to the ground! I asked him if he hid another somewhere, he accused me of being dramatic.

    I came back later with a mask on and remove SEVEN ‘air fresheners’!!! He had little clips in all the vents.

  • Ellen Schnakenberg author
    7 years ago

    jeannie – Oh holy cow! What an experience!

    Like you, I often get the ‘ol eye-rolls, so I don’t complain so much anymore. My family knows. There’s no point in getting mad at them about it. Despite the eyerolls, my family and friends do seem very sympathetic and do try to keep the *hit you in the face* odors to a minimum.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to comment! 🙂

  • tucker
    7 years ago

    LOL, I was just thinking, it’s a shame they don’t make a discreet (and comfortable!) nose plug. Maybe those jobs don’t pay so well any more and maybe they don’t even exist?, but it’s a shame you had to suffer when the pay was so good. Plus, I have to sit 5 feet from my coworker when we’re both at our computer – it’d be GREAT to have such a product on most days!

  • tucker
    7 years ago

    Oh, since migraines, I am definitely a “super smeller” and stinky odors esp make me nauseous beyond belief which starts that head pain cycle and of course the right circumstances lead to a migraine. Sadly, my coworker smokes and I think he fails to use deodorant and NEVER washes his lab coat and it stinks to high heaven. *I* take it home at least once a month on a Friday when I work on Sat and wash it just so I won’t vomit from his stench. He’s a nice guy but come on….

    It’s also gotten so bad that I’ve become a very picky eater, almost like back to the pregnancy days – no broccoli (the thought of that smell makes me shiver), no peppers, onions, sausage (like a ballpark or food stand smell) just strong odors like that. Then other strong stuff like garbage, bad breath, that fake Christmas tree smell, pine sol, (lol but mild bleach smell is fine-go figure – better than stench), Axe, Old Spice and other men’s aftershave, all that stuff you guys know.

    LOL – actually when I looked up fear of smells – it came back to osmophobia and I found this passage, which seems pretty spot on!

    Osmophobia, or the fear of smells, is relatively rare as a stand-alone phobia. However, it is fairly common among those who suffer from migraine headaches. Some migraine sufferers report that their headaches are triggered by strong scents. Understandably, this connection could lead to a fear of smells.

  • Ellen Schnakenberg author
    7 years ago

    tucker – thank you so much for the comment! I love that you found us on your osmophobia hunt, lol 🙂 It’s kind of sad that it isn’t just a *fear* of smells, isn’t it?! I could deal with a fear of something much easier than smells making me so sick.

  • Nancy Harris Bonk moderator
    7 years ago

    I was pleased to finally see a sign in one of my doctors offices saying the perfumes, colognes and other scents should not be worn due to people’s sensitives and could trigger numerous conditions.


  • michellemmmm
    7 years ago

    Since I’ve had chronic migraines (almost two years now), it seems like my symptoms continually increase and change. A super sense of smell has definitely come with it too. My boyfriend and I call it my “Super Nose.” He knows something is up when I start sniffing. I can’t stand any odors that I can distinguish. Usually “warm” smells are pretty safe, like vanillas and things along those lines.

  • Julie
    7 years ago

    it started out slowly for me. Smells never bothered me so much at first but as the years wore on the worse it go until it seemed the past 6-8 years I could not tolerate any strong smells and now if we go to the store I have to stay 2 isles away from the soap and laudry isle as well as the candle isle but now that it’s holiday season they will have scented stuff all over the place. YUCK. We went to a store, so far so good, avoided all the “pitfalls” went to the bathroom and up on the wall after I got in the stall they had one of those automated things that sprayed scented stuff through the bathroom. I could not get out of there fast enough. I did a fast walk out of there and we went to another store and I went cautiously into the bathroom and checked all the corners, up and down the walls and no sprayers and I could use the bathroom and not have to get “scented” with some flowery stinky spray that would set me off! I tell you Ellen, the scented stuff is out there no matter where you go and it’s on a mission to attack migrainers. Or at least it feels that way to me, LOL. I can laugh now, but come on. No break from perfume in the bathroom! Gimmie a break!

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