Odor as a Migraine Trigger and Symptom

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Have you ever had the experience of walking through a local department store only to be overcome soon after by a migraine? Did you suspect that strong smell of perfume wafting into your nostrils as the potential culprit?

We know that many people who have migraines report environmental triggers such as weather, noise, and light. Odors too can trigger migraines and are quite common ones.

Common Odors That Trigger Migraines

Sensitivity to smell is common in the general population and can manifest as a headache or migraine in those who are predisposed.

In one study in Italy, 46 percent of young food store workers reported feeling ill after being exposed to several chemical materials, with a headache being the most common symptom reported. The most problematic odors reported in the study were car exhaust and pesticides.

In another study in Headache, of a sample of over 100 migraineurs, perfume was reported as the most common odor trigger, followed by cigarette smoke and cleaning products.

Other examples of odors that may trigger a migraine include:

  • Asphalt
  • Carpeting
  • Paint thinners
  • Detergents
  • Combustible gas 

Understanding Osmophobia and Other Odor-Related Symptoms

Odor can certainly play a role in triggering migraines, but it can also be part of the attack itself. During a migraine, you may have noticed an increased sense of smell or a desire to avoid a smell. This phenomenon is called osmophobia, and it has actually been found to occur in the vast majority of migraineurs (including those with and without aura).

While osmophobia classically occurs during an attack, similar to photophobia (a sensitivity to light) and phonophobia (a sensitivity to sound), this symptom may also occur between migraine attacks.

In fact, in one study in Cephalalgia, migraineurs were more likely to report an overall general hypersensitivity to smells (between their migraine attacks) than non-migraineurs. Interestingly, the migraineurs who reported a smell sensitivity between migraine attacks were more likely to have odor-triggered migraines and a higher number of migraines than those who did not report smell hypersensitivity. These findings suggest that odor sensitivity may be useful in distinguishing a diagnosis of migraine from other headache disorders—not a slam dunk finding, but at least a clue.

Keep in mind, there are other odor-related symptoms that have been reported in migraineurs, albeit at a lower rate than osmophobia. Two examples are phantosmia (smelling an odor that is not there, a "phantom smell") and cacosmia (perceiving an unpleasant smell).

Lastly, research reveals that migraineurs who experience osmophobia and odor-triggered migraines also report having generally worse olfactory acuity, which means a decreased ability to detect smells in general. Experts are not sure why this is the case.

Preventing Odors From Triggering Your Migraines

Awareness and then avoidance of your triggers, or at least managing or coping with them as best as you can is key to preventing your migraines.

One idea to preventing odor-triggered migraines is to write down all sensory details about your migraine experience, like what you were smelling, seeing, feeling, hearing, or tasting prior to and during your attack.

What you are eating just prior to a migraine attack may be particularly important, as research has found that people with odor-triggered migraines, also report food-triggered migraines. Perhaps, it's the smell of foods that is triggering their migraines, not necessarily the precise content of the food.

Other ideas to consider include:

  • Writing down in a diary or recording on your phone any odor symptoms during your migraine attack, like osmophobia or experiencing unpleasant or imaginary smells.
  • Seeing your healthcare provider and having an open, honest conversation about what you think your potential triggers are. Sharing your diary or phone notes with him or her.

Taking charge of your environment. For example, if you discover perfume is a trigger, consider discussing a perfume-free workplace with your boss or roommate. 

A Word From Verywell

The bottom line here is that odor is a common trigger of migraines, likely even more than experts previously thought. Also, odor may serve as a clue to a diagnosis of migraine.

Even so, if you think you are experiencing odor-triggered migraines, please see your doctor for a proper evaluation. In addition to optimizing your migraine prevention strategies, your doctor can discuss treatment options with you, should an attack occur.

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