What’s Your Secret: Smell

The nose plays a huge role when it comes to migraine. From signaling, to triggering an attack, or to worsening an existing one, the olfactory process is quite powerful. In this What’s Your Secret Video, we discuss ways that smell interacts with migraine.

Phantom smells and odor triggers

Please join the discussion in the comment section below so we can learn from one another. Do you experience phantom smells? Which scents can trigger an attack for you? How do you handle challenges with strong odors?

Note: Migraines often show themselves through the five senses of the human body. Whether in the form of a prodrome or a trigger, it’s almost as if the senses are like kindling just waiting to ignite- with migraine being the match. This What’s Your Secret Video is part of a series on the Five Senses and how they interact with Migraine. We hope you will join us in the comment section to share your stories and experiences of how your senses have played a role with your migraine disease. Stay tuned for more videos.

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

View Comments (21)
  • glassmind
    3 weeks ago

    I usueally wear a scarf, so I can quickly wrap my face if encountering a trigger scent or heavy dust.

    I also wear a reusable surgical medical mask when I know scent is going to be a problem. There are even stylist and cute ones (for any gender) availible. Check out japanese retailers to find.

    I also have disposable surgical masks nearby all the time.

    I am quick to answer questions about my gaurded face with “I have asthma” or “allergies”. Which I do and I do wear the masks for these reasons as well. I find “I have migraines” is less understood/sympathized, but the public.

    I have often recieved the respose “Good idea!” and more then once “I should do that!”.

    I also use counter-agent scents. Basically, I wear natural oils I find therapeutic. I realize this is a balance of using a scent that helps me, but may be a trigger for someone else. Yet, is so very helpful for me. Usually, people respond positively and I often hear “You smell great!”

    I have had a few people be bothered by the oils and would only carry rather than wear them when with these folks in the future.

    I dab these oils on masks as well if needed. And carry a small bottle of oil with me.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    3 weeks ago

    Once again, great with the sharing of the valuable resources, @glassmind! Thank you for taking the time to do so.

    I have only recently come to understand the value of putting essential oil on scarfs that I wear so that I can better control the smells in my environment. Lavender is a scent that calms me greatly- I sometimes will mix that with peppermint and spray that on my scarf before I head out. I’ll just put it in my purse if I don’t need it for warmth- but it’s a great insurance policy in case I encounter a strong odor (someone else’s cologne, exhaust fumes, cigarette smoke, etc). I can just whip out the scarf, wrap it round my neck and put it in front of my face and take some deep inhalations until I feel better.

    What’s your favorite scent?

  • glassmind
    2 weeks ago

    Lavander is a safe “go to”. I find peppermint disturbing, though it is so oft recommended for headaches (my luck). I also like frankincense and myrrh. My personal blend shifts as I rotate through a few I like from SunEye oils (some have synthetics and these I avoid) as well as single oils like citrus or rosemary depending on the seasons.

    The vial I carry on my person gets refilled with the last reminants of exriguishing vials at home and so continually evolves and “ages”.

  • straxt
    3 months ago

    I smell a dirty wet ashtray kind of smell before a headache sets in. The first time it happened i kept asking co-workers if they could smell smoke…. It got to the point they thought I was crazy! I thought I was crazy. Out took me a few months before I connected it to my headaches.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    3 months ago

    Thank you so much for sharing how smells interact with your migraine disease. Many people report a phantom scent of smoke. The smell of a wet ashtray sounds absolutely miserable! Is there anything you can do to offset those smells? And do they ever cause or increase a sense of nausea?

    Thanks again for sharing your experiences. So glad you’re a part of our community! Stay in touch.

  • 9731mb
    3 months ago

    Any products that are artificially scented can trigger a migraine, make one worse, or make me feel generally miserable (watering eyes and nose, upset stomach, and increased irritability). Have discovered that some grocery stores spray something that has scent in it on their products – from apples that I’ve had to give away to carrot bags and almond milk containers (from one store it was so strong I had to decant it because it was stinking up the fridge). Perfumed co-workers have been a plague for me for over 30 years. Many perfumes smell like Raid to me. I was always wondering why they were doing so much bug spraying at work. Now I work as much as possible from my home office. Have not figured out what to do about scents… it’s a huge problem for me. Scented laundry products also do my head in. Even people walking by 50 feet away can send wafts of scent over that will scratch at my brain. There’s a documentary on Netflix called Stink! that explains the increase of sensitivities and reactions to scented products. It’s frightening, but also illuminating.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    3 months ago

    Thank you so much for the recommendation of the documentary! I really look forward to seeing that out. And I think you pose a quandary with which we all struggle. That of how to handle a world where strong smells are everywhere.

    Is there a way to properly ask people to tone down or not wear their favorite perfume when we work in close proximity with them? How to have that conversation?

    Would love to hear everyone’s thoughts and suggestions on this!

    Thanks so much for sharing!

  • jrse
    3 months ago

    I often have phantom scents before I get a migraine; they are always something noxious- skunk, bleach or other type of strong cleanser, smoke, cigarette. I often get these phantom smells in the middle of the night and they keep me awake. The only plus side is they signal that a mild migraine is coming. When I’m bloated or have visual hallucinations, then I’m in trouble.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    3 months ago

    Interesting to hear how these extreme smells serve as a prodromes for you. This happens to me as well. I sometimes close my eyes and think I am seeing a headlight coming straight into my eyes even when I am sitting in a dark room. That is always a bad sign, as you say – and I know I am in big trouble.

    I suppose, even though these prodromes are troublesome – it’s helpful to be conscious of them as treating a migraine before it’s full-blown gives us our best chance of tamping it down.

    Thanks for sharing and so glad you are a part of our community. Please stay in touch!

  • 2i9s1h
    3 months ago

    My scent is I can take a shower & swear I stink. I have this rancid scent in my nose, & think it’s me stinky. Right before we got out for Christmas break, I swore to a couple of friends I could smell myself, I stank. But they said they didn’t smell anything but soap. And, I smell burnt coffee. Not even coffee close, that is my “Knowing” it’s a really bad 2 day bed stay.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    3 months ago

    The burnt coffee smell is definitely one I’ve heard of before but so interesting that you are smelling yourself! That’s a new one on me. Goes to show how different we all are. However, I’ll bet you anything there’s many others out there who experience the same thing. After all there are 36 million of us in the United States alone who are battling this disease.

    I really appreciate you adding to the list of smells! Thanks for sharing.

  • Soteria
    3 months ago

    There’s an old saying that a migraineur can smell a lemon being sliced at 2 blocks. I don’t get the visual or ocular warnings pre-migraine, but I do have episodes where certain smells are intensified or just plain phantom. I have often gone to work surrounded by the pungent smell of cat urine, which only I can smell, my co-workers assure me. Or the incident earlier this year when I walked into my office building and was greeted with the delicious aroma of steaks on the grill (at 6:45am!!) I chocked it up to the whatever our café was making for the day and promptly forgot about it. Until that evening, I walked into a subway station to catch my train and there it was again. Smelled like Smith and Wollensky or Ocean Prime…..lovely. Until I realized that this was a subway station and no one here is cooking anything. ‘You’re gonna get a migraine..’. Sure enough……

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    3 months ago

    A steak smell, huh? Better than cat urine at least.

    You bring up such a good point! These smells can really work for us as a warning signal that a migraine is coming – only if we’ve had them before! There are plenty of times a new strong smell appears and we are convinced it is real until the migraine comes knocking and it’s only in retrospect that we realize what was going on. We then add that smell to our personal list until a new one comes along.

    Thanks for sharing!

  • Chrys
    3 months ago

    One of my triggers is fake floral scents of the type used in laundry detergents and scented candles. I can always tell when it’s “laundry day” in my neighborhood because the sewer smells of fake flowers. It’s sickening. I’ve noticed the smell of detergent in the sewer two blocks away from a Laundromat, before even knowing there was one in the area. These aren’t phantom smells, though. They are real. I’m just very sensitive. Now, phantom sounds, yes! But that’s a different topic.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    3 months ago

    Hi Chrys- Having the volume turned up on life (on all sensory fronts such that smells are stronger, sights are brighter, sounds are louder) is one of those interesting things that comes with migraine disease. How we choose think of this challenge might help: https://migraine.com/blog/migraineurs-the-new-superhero/

    Would love to hear more of your phantom sounds! I have noticed having phantom sights of bright lights (not aura, just the sense that I can’t escape terribly bright lights, even when I close my eyes). All this certainly goes to confirm the complex nature of migraine as a neurological disease.

    Thanks for chiming in. Please stay in touch!

  • baileychic8
    3 months ago

    Although my migraines suddenly stopped (I had cluster migraines aka suicide headaches) I’m in constant fear they could come back at any time. Not always but sometimes I would suddenly smell something burning, I presumed it was my brain it felt like it was being cooked during the worst part of it. I learned a lot of tricks I’d like to share I don’t know if they will help your migraines or not , cluster migraines typically ran their course within a few hours leaving me weak and spent. I had 5 minutes to get where I needed to be they came on that fast, so driving was pretty much out. Someone showed me how to press the indent in the back of my head/neck really hard and this actually stopped quite a few in their tracks. Also cayenne pepper nose spray….it would either instantly stop them or make them hit full force, more often than not it would stop them. At the beginning of all I would take a Goody’s Berry flavored powder, which led to an eroded esophagus but that’s another story. The 30 min wait for it to kick in was horrible. They say breathing pure oxygen stops them as well but I never tried. What I did learn to do was pass out so I could avoid the worst of the pain….always behind my left eyeball like a searing hot poker, one eye would drop and water and one side of my nose would run. I finally went to the doctor for a headache I felt like I was a sissy for going, she looked me over and insisted I try veramyst, the first time I had them for a year straight and within a week they were gone. The medicine was $200 per bottle it’s a nasal spray. About 2 years later they came back always in the middle of the night and increasing in intensity and frequency until the crescendo of non stop pain. I was unemployed and luckily I thought to go on glaxo Smith klines site and sure enough they sent me 3 free bottles of it. My grandmother had the regular migraines that lasted for days and she had visual disturbences beforehand. We lost her in 2012 from a brain tumor. I feel for each and every one of you suffering endlessly, don’t give up maybe yours too will suddenly stop and you’ll be free to drive and go out and feel normal . Thank you.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    3 months ago

    What a journey. Thank you for sharing your story and what worked for you while you were in the midst of managing the worst of the worst. Very generous of you to share successful strategies with everyone. Wonderful to hear you finally broke free of the pain.

    Thanks again for this offering. Please stay in touch.

  • Nicole
    3 months ago

    I would love to know if anyone has a recommendation for an air filter to use in the office to defend against perfume. I actually talked to a co-worker this week and asked her to wear less perfume. We don’t ever work together directly but whenever she visits her boss in the office near my desk I have to leave because I can smell her for 30 feet away. She was very gracious and apologized but then I noticed she wasn’t coming by after that and a different co-worker was… who also bathes in perfume.

    I explained to the first co-worker it was definitely something weird with me and that particular perfume. I also noticed my allodynia was also acting up this week so I scheduled another nerve block for that (unfortunately not until 1/11/19) which will hopefully tone down my reactions.

    In the mean time, I spent a lot of time this week investigating air filters that I can keep on my desk and will hopefully buy one before I go back to the office late next week.

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    3 months ago

    Hi Nicole- While I don’t have a recommendation for an air filter, I did want to ask you how you navigated that conversation with your coworker regarding her perfume and your request that she tone it down. I think many of us are in similar situations and feel stuck about how to manage what feels like a tricky conversation as it can feel like we are imposing our needs on others. It sounds like you tried to make it about yourself as much as possible (this is my condition and how it just happens to intersect with this particular perfume).

    You said she was gracious and apologized which I’m assuming is due to the way you approached her.

    We’d be grateful if you’d share some more about how you handled this situation so effectively so others can learn from you. Also- if you found a good air filter- let us know that too!

    Thanks and so glad you’re a part of our community.

  • Elizabeth
    3 months ago

    Nicole, I had a very difficult time at work due to fragrances. I was a school administrator. I finally couldn’t stand it anymore and my neurologist wrote a letter to my employer about my environmental sensitivities. The school provided a nice big air purifier for my office and I let my colleagues know that if they wore perfume to kindly stay out of my office. ‘Coming out’ with migraine is a really complex problem but I started losing days due to fragrance issues. I am highly reactive. Thanks to George HW Bush and his work on the Americans with Disabilities Act we are finally protected and we do have rights. If you bring in a letter from your doc, your HR department will work with you. You can make things a little better for yourself and others. It’s hard to go ‘fragrance free’ at work but it’s okay to speak up. The research on fragrances and how it can alter your brain is astounding. Most fragrances are petroleum based and are actually toxic. You’d be doing everyone a favor!

  • Holly Baddour moderator author
    3 months ago

    Thank you for this information, Elizabeth! You’re so right that there are many reasons that “coming out” as having migraine can be difficult. What a great idea to go through HR and let them help you in a more official way to navigate what could be a pretty sticky situation.

    Grateful for your guidance and that you’re a part of our community!

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