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Migraines – Scents & Sensitivity

Even with so many advances in medicine and technology, trigger diaries are still one of the first things doctors recommend after a migraine diagnosis. That is in part because migraines aren’t fully understood yet, so biological markers aren’t a reliable measurement. The other reason is that learning to recognize migraine triggers has been proven to improve patient-physician communication regarding treatment options and outcomes.

Everyone has different triggers, but experts believe that some common offenders affect migraineurs more than others. For example, women are significantly more likely to experience migraines than men, and researchers believe that female hormones might be partly to blame.

Stress is also a common trigger. In fact, one clinical study published in the journal Cephalgia found that almost 80 percent of respondents identified stress as a major headache trigger. Odors and scents also play a significant role in triggering and sometimes worsening migraines.

What’s That Smell?

Scents are something we tend to take for granted. As long as they are not offensive or extremely potent, we rarely notice what our surroundings smell like. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t detect the scent around us. As unlikely as it may seem, the human nose can discriminate more than one trillion smells, according to a research study published in 2014.

Our olfactory sense has many purposes, like detecting hazardous agents and shaping our sense of taste. The things we smell every day also influence how we relate and interact with the world around us; different scents can change our mood, transport us back to a particular memory, or, in the case of migraineurs, trigger a headache.

It isn’t clear why scents can trigger headaches in some people. Experts know that when a substance releases its molecules into the air, and we breathe them in, they stimulate a particular type of cells high at the back of the nose, called olfactory sensory neurons. Migraine sufferers are known to be more sensitive to odors because their sensory neurons and pain receptors seem to be more easily aroused than on people without migraines.

Common Migraine-Triggering Scents

Osmophobia is the medical term to describe the intense sensitivity and aversion to scents. While osmophobia is categorized as an anxiety disorder, it’s most commonly seen as a migraine symptom than as a stand-alone condition. Many studies have been conducted to assess the prevalence of osmophobia among migraine sufferers.

A study published in the journal Advanced Biomedical Research that surveyed 300 headache patients in Iran found that 84 percent of migraineurs with aura and 74 percent of migraine sufferers without aura reported that scents triggered some of their attacks. 50 percent of all respondents noted that osmophobia was present in all of their attacks. In another study, 75 percent of participants identified perfumes as a migraine trigger.

Perfumes are not the only smell-related migraine trigger. These are other scents that migraineurs should try to avoid:

  • Cigarette smoke
  • Gasoline and gas fumes
  • Motor vehicle exhaust
  • Chemical cleaning products
  • Paint/Paint thinner
  • Incense
  • Campfire smoke
  • Certain types of foods
  • Nail polish/nail polish remover

Preventing Smell-Induced Migraines

Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of control over how the world around us smells like. One of the most common odor-related triggers, motor vehicle exhaust, is almost impossible to avoid, no matter how hard we try. At home, it is easier to manage smells by switching to fragrance-free products, using a fan to circulate stale air, going out for fresh air, etc.

Here are some simple strategies you can implement to avoid smell-induced migraines when you are not at home:

  • Ask your employer to implement a fragrance-free policy (here’s an example from the American Lung Association)
  • Use an air purifier
  • Use a migraine stick to block out smells
  • Wear a surgical mask or a nose plug
  • Keep a trigger diary to learn to recognize your smell triggers so you can better avoid them