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Sensitivity to smells

Migraine sensitivity to smells symptoms : an introduction

About 40 percent to 50 percent of migraine sufferers experience a change in their sense of smell during a migraine attack. Although sensitivity to smells hasn’t been studied as much as migraine aura or light sensitivity, it does occur often and for many people it causes discomfort. In some, the change may be a small increase in the ability to smell things far away. More often, migraine sufferers complain that smells make them feel worse during a migraine attack.

In fact, the International Headache’s Society’s requirements for diagnosing a migraine without aura, the person must have at least two of the following migraine symptoms:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sensitivity to light – photophobia
  • Sensitivity to sound – phonophobia
  • Sensitivity to smell – osmophobia

Migraines are thought to be related to changes in the way the brain operates, which explains why the migraine attacks led to alterations in the senses, including increased sensitivity to smells.


Different ways migraines and smells impact sufferers:

  • Increased sense of smell
  • Desire to avoid smells
  • Smells may trigger migraine attack
  • Smells can lead to increased nausea
  • In some, migraines alter the sense of both taste and smell
  • Some report phantom smells

Studies on migraines and smells

A 2007 study of 1,000 patients in London found about 40 percent reported that they couldn’t tolerate smells during a migraine attack. The odors that disturbed them the most:

  • Perfumes or colognes, 64 percent
  • Food, 55 percent
  • Cigarette smoke, 55 percent

In a 2004 study, almost a quarter of the 673 migraine sufferers studied had some type of smell sensitivity during a migraine.

An older study, done in 1985, of 50 migraine sufferers found 45 had light sensitivity, 40 had nausea, 32 sound sensitivity and 20 sensitivity to smell. In the study:

  • 8 couldn’t be around the smell of cigarette or cigar smoke,
  • 6 avoided the smell of cooking
  • 5 disliked the smell of soap, perfume or aftershave




Osmophobia is the medical term for fear, dislike or aversion to smells or odors. This dislike of odors is more common than the increased sensitivity to smell in migraine sufferers and only occurs during a migraine attack.


Heightened perception or increased smell sensitivity. One patient reported smelling a rose 20 feet away.

About the sense of smell

Humans can smell by inhaling air into their noses and also through the back of the mouth, which is the main way humans smell food and liquids while consuming. Smell contributes to the sense of taste and helps people decide if a food has positive or negative taste and smell qualities. Both the sense of smell and the sense of taste are related and some migraine sufferers complain of changes in both senses.

Written by: Otesa Miles | Last review date: November 2010
Journal of Neurology, Smell and Other sensory disturbances in migraine, Dec. 2, 2004, Blau