Odor as a Migraine Trigger and Symptom

Common Migraine-Causing Odors and the Science Behind It

sales person with perfume
Westend61/Getty images

Have you ever had the experience of walking through a local department store only to be overcome by a migraine as the smell of perfume wafts into your nostrils? We know that people who suffer from migraines consistently report environmental factors such as weather, noise, and light exposure as triggers. Odors too can trigger migraines.

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

Many other common odors have also been reported to trigger migraines including:

  • perfumes
  • foods
  • tobacco smoke
  • asphalt
  • carpeting
  • paint thinners
  • detergents
  • combustible gas 

What is Osmophobia?

Smell 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 is called osmophobia

Also, it might surprise you to learn that this smell hypersensitivity may also occur between migraine attacks. In fact, in one 2006 study in Cephalalgia, migraineurs were more likely to report a general hypersensitivity to smells (between their migraine attacks) than non-migraineurs.

In addition, 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. 

How Does Odor Trigger a Migraine?

It'a not totally clear but may have to do with a condition called chemical sensitivity.

The first stage of chemical sensitivity involves the loss of tolerance for a chemical smell. Stage two involves the onset of a migraine by re-exposure to the previously tolerated chemical. In other words, a person may become "intolerant" to a smell after one or multiple exposures. Then when exposed again to the smell, the person develops a migraine, similar to an allergic response.

What Can I Do if Certain Odors Trigger My Migraines?

Remember that awareness of your triggers, and avoidance (or coping) of them are key to migraine prevention. Here are some ideas to consider when identifying your triggers:

• Create a headache diary to see if certain odors are triggering your migraines.
• Write down or record in your phone any perceived smells you have prior to or during a migraine attack to see if there are common links.
• See your healthcare provider and have an open, honest conversation about what you think your potential triggers are. Share your diary with her.
• Take charge of your environment. For example, if you discover perfume is a trigger, consider discussing a perfume-free workplace with your boss or roommate. 

Demarquay, G., Royet, J.P., Giraud, P., Chazot, G., Valade, D., & Ryvlin, P. (2006). Rating of olfactory judgements in migraine patients. Cephalalgia,, 26(9):1123-30.

Friedman, D.I., De ver Dye, T. (2009). Migraine and the Environment. Headache,Jun;49(6):941-52.

Magnavita, N. (2001). Cacosmia in healthy workers. British Journal of Medical Psychology, Mar;74(Pt 1):121-7.

Miller, C.S. (1996). Chemical sensitivity: Symptom, syndrome, or mechanism for disease? Toxicology, July;111(1-3):69-86.

Zanchin, G., Dainese, F., Trucco, M., Mainardi, F., Mampreso, E., Maggioni, F. (2007). Osmophobia in migraine and tension-type headache and its clinical features in patients with migraines. Cephalalgia, Sept;27(9):1061-8.

DISCLAIMER: The information in this site is for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for personal care by a licensed physician. Please see your doctor for diagnosis and treatment of any concerning symptoms or medical condition.

Continue Reading