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Smell migraine triggers, HELP!

Hey! I just found you guys, and my migraines are literally ruining my life. Most people think migraines are just pains. Those that do have them can actually function relatively well. I DEPEND on my medication to get out of bed pretty much as they become more frequent. Needless to say, I need all of the help I can get.

One trigger I have always noticed and pinned down is smells. Just smells in general, but especially stuff like perfume, body spray, air freshers, cleaning chemicals, and anything that has a strong artificial scent. I know what scents don't trigger migraines and latch onto these as if my life depended on it for things like body wash, soap, laundry detergent, dish soap, and everything else.

Strong smells trigger migraines, but it's an instant trigger. It's not like I can walk into a store with the smell, say, "Shit, I gotta avoid this." Get out and be okay. Recently I walked into a hall where someone must have sprayed perfume. I knew immediately to GTFO, and so I did. I covered my nose and ran out. The thing is, it still triggered a migraine. One wiff. One smell. One second.

This is BEYOND frustrating. I take my medicine often. It's usually how I get through the day. However, I can only take it every 6 hours. So if I take it, it works, and two hours later I walk into that room with the smell unknowingly, only to smell it and a migraine comes on, I'm SOL for a few more hours.

Any migraine sufferers that can help? Any advice? You can't avoid unapologetic people that wear far too much perfume or spray perfume in common areas where other people have to walk through. It just happens. It'll come on no matter how fast I get out. Does anyone else have this problem?

  1. Hi faeriefate, thanks for reaching out with your question.

    You may be interested in Practical Strategies to Avoid Scent Triggers for some tips and tricks to help you when you run into those unexpected scent clouds.

    Thanks for being here and for sharing your thoughts. -All Best, Donna ( team)

    1. Oh, thank you so much DonnaFA! I recently kinda got fed up with my migraines, searched this site for migraine specialists, and found the best one possible to call and schedule an appointment. Bad news it's in 5 months. Good news and they are semi-local and GOOD! So it's nice to have a preventive strategy for the one known trigger that I can't avoid.

      Also, thank you Lisa Robin for your concern. I understand there is a lot of concern within the migraine community. There's a lot of risks for migraine sufferers. I have only really visited my primary care for my migraines thus far. As I've said, I've had them since I was ten, but in a weird cycle. Had them for a few years, they went away for a few years, back a few years, gone again a few more years, and now they're back again. Like the friend that keeps nagging you even though you don't really want to talk to them.

      My primary issue with getting help this far is circumstance, honestly. First time I was taking regular pain medication as I was wearing braces, and that dulled a lot of the migraines for me, so I wasn't aware of how bad they were. Second time around the doctors tried almost everything and just said there's no known cause or cure for migraines. I literally had two baskets full of medication that didn't work around this time. Even went to a few psychologists as one doctor said it could be cause by depression? I was going to a few doctors, one that worked at the nearby ER/Urgent Care that I frequented when I lost days of sleep from pain. The others my primary care and his PAs. They all just threw their hands up in the air said they tried everything, and the ER doctor said, "It's a long shot, but here's a plan." It was ultimately taking Fish Oil and Lutein. Hey, I don't question things that work.

      But this time around I'm back on the vitamins (plus one because Fish Oil keeps Magnesium in the system, and I know my magnesium gets low often so I was hoping that would help). Thankfully now there's a lot more information out there on migraines than there were years ago, but I never really went to a specialist about my issue. My primary care only offered seizure medicines (a common preventative), but I can't take it because the side effects make it impossible for me to function. I know they wear off in a few days, but I don't have a few days at this point in my life. In a few months I plan to make time, but right now, I just can't.

      Trust me, I hate taking my medicine this often as much as anyone. Health risks aside, I can't function any better on this pain medication than I could with a migraine. The only difference is I'm not functioning out in public rather than in bed crying puking whatever I ate. Not a pretty picture, but before I got this abortive medication I was actually losing weight because I couldn't hold down food for 48 hours while I had the migraine. Back then they were only once a month, but they got worst far too quickly, and now are several times a week. The only preventative I have is a chiropractor to adjust my neck, which gives me relief for like 3 days.

      Ultimately, I'm screwed. Which is why I'm going to pretty much the best specialist I could find on my insurance plan. Gotta wait it out for a few months or hope I jump to the front of the waiting list to get in early! Fingers crossed! Until then, I really wish that I could take a preventative. However, as I've said. With past experience, I just cling to the first thing that works. I'm sure your understand better than the migraine sufferers I've met. Most people that have migraines get them every once in a while, so people aren't quite so understanding of me having to miss large amounts of time for anything because of migraines. Frankly speaking, as uncommon as migraines are, chronic ones are even less common.

      Thank you both! You were both a huge help! Hopefully this doctor can help me get this sorted out. While I wait, I'll just stick with what I have.

  2. Hi Faeriefate,

    Sorry to hear you are going through this! I, too, fall victim to the scent-triggered migraine, though I am usually okay with perfumes and have more problems with cleaning products, which makes things a bit easier. I have experienced that smell triggers can often be quite instant as well.

    In addition to the article DonnaFA posted above, I wanted to bring up another point, which is medication. I am assuming the medication you are taking every day is some type of abortive medication. That is, you take it to STOP an attack. Types of abortive medications include triptans (like imitrex, maxalt, etc), NSAIDS (advil, aleve...) and others.

    Here's an article on abortive meds:

    These are meant to be taken on occasion and not every day as there is a risk for rebound medication overuse headache.

    Have you talked to your doctor and have tried or are currently trying a preventive medication for your migraine? It can take trial and error to find something that helps, but if you do you can often be less sensitive to triggers than you once were, and can reduce the frequency of your migraine attacks. If you are having migraines frequently I definitely would bring this up with your doctor if you haven't already.

    Here is some info on preventive medication:

    Hope this helps, and feel better!

    1. Hi faeriefate,

      Thanks for sharing some more of your story. It's always helpful to know more of the context. I think it's great that you've sought out some alternative therapies, like the vitamins and chiro, even if the relief is only temporary. I also understand needing the medicine to function, and not wanting to lose time due to the side effects of trying a new medicine. When I was finishing grad school I was facing similar issues with chronic migraine (and since it was an art school there was no end to noises, smells, and other triggers around me every day!). Under the supervision of my doctor as I was lucky enough to have lived in an urban area with a choice of headache specialists, I was able to temporarily take my abortive more often than normal to help me get through school while trying to find a preventive to work, which as you know can be trial and error (and often more error than trial!). I also at one point asked him, please no more med changes until I graduate, because as you mentioned I would lose precious days I did not have to adjusting to the side effects.

      I hope you are able to see the specialist soon and that he/she is of help. Just a note, often they are able to fit you in when there is a cancellation so I hope you can see the specialist sooner. But know we are hear for support and information while you are waiting.

      One last thing I wanted to mention is that migraines often come in cycles, like you've experienced. I speak to many people who hit a rough patch, then get better, and hit a rough patch again. The hope is, once you establish treatment that is effective for you, that you will have options for the next rough patch if it ever were to occur again. For example, I received Botox for a few years and stopped last year, but that is something I could try again if I became chronic again.

      Feel free to reach out any time, and we certainly understand.

      Be well,

    2. Oh, so cycles are normal? Well, that's something to look forward to, I suppose. Kind of difficult to justify the need for disability (which I am considering) when you may have years with nothing wrong, but what can we do? I'd love to never have a migraine if I could.

      Also, update in the smell triggers. So I'm taking college classes, and I've had a good thing happen. I was a leader in my group and one of my friends was concerned. They took on the leadership role because she found out I have stress triggered migraines (darn you FB). But I've felt much better today since that happened.

      Now really onto stress triggers. One of my classes next semester is in a wing that does wood and metal work. If I know one thing, the preservatives or whatever that they use on metals is a migraine trigger. So, you can see where this is going. Going to a classroom twice a week that is a migraine trigger. That takes guts, man. So I'm looking into some of the solutions for scent triggered migraines. That charcoal mask idea seems the most promising considering the potency of the scent. I'll consult the doctor if I get in before next semester. Otherwise I'll consult family and see what they think of the idea.

  3. Hi Faereifate,
    Though everyone is different and our migraine patterns can change, it definitely isn't unusual for migraines to come in cycles. It can be weeks, months or years, depending on the person. This article explains it a little more: That being said, migraine is a chronic disease and if it is interfering with your ability to function to a certain extent, it is completely reasonable to consider disability. If that is something you are looking into, we can help provide some resources on that.

    It's great to hear about your friend's support. And you're right, it takes guts to go into a situation regularly that you know is a trigger! I personally haven't tried the charcoal mask, maybe some other members of the community will weigh in, but basically no matter what others say, it comes down to what helps you, so I always say pretty much anything is worth a try.

    Wishing you well


    1. Hi Faereifate,
      I think you may suffer from this part of migraine worse than me, but I have it too. Yes, people with too much cologne or perfume on is horrible & a sure migraine starter. What is wrong with these people?! I mean, a little of that stuff goes a LONG way! I swear, some people seem to leave a vapor trail behind them, they have it on so strong that, even after they have left the immediate vicinity, you can still smell them for ages! UGH!!
      Other things that will trigger me, that are more "natural", but no less pungent, are smoke & skunk. I have found that peppermint, if taken quickly enough, MAY help to distract my olfactory perception enough to avoid or reduce the severity of headache. Notice the capital letters in MAY. It's not perfect, but sometimes it helps. So I keep hard peppermint candy in my purse at all times, just in case.
      Best wishes,

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