Perfumes and Migraines: The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Stinky



We don’t call it heady perfume for nothing

You don’t have to be a chronic migraine sufferer to get a headache from overpowering scents. Anybody who has ever been to a department store has felt the mind-altering effects of what I offhandedly refer to as tertiary au de toilette, or second-hand perfume, that mass-produced fusion of every type of fragrance imaginable – spicy, sweet, floral, fruity, innocent, bold, and musky – all merging into one intoxicating fog.  It’s only one example of the many scent-sational migraine headache triggers that surround us.

Other scenarios of headache-inducing scent bombardment often happen in the workplace, down the grocery aisle, while sitting in church, while waiting in line at DMV, or upon entering a public restroom.  (Either it smells like a porta-potty, or it’s just been drenched with heavy-duty, full-strength chlorine bleach.  Whichever way, it’s a lose/lose situation, as far as your vascular nerves are concerned.)

Wine, Cheese, Perfume, and other Headache Triggers

Osmophobia: It’s not being afraid of the Osmonds

If you’re a chronic migraineur, then you’ve probably experienced bouts of osmophobia, a fear of odors.  According to, “About 40 percent to 50 percent of migraine sufferers experience a change in their sense of smell during a migraine attack.”  During an “attack of the scents,” your sensory abilities go into overdrive, and your nerves that interpret smells become overstimulated and confused, causing headaches, and nausea.

Some symptoms of osmophobia include:

  • Heightened sense of smell
  • Strong aversion to smells of any kind
  • Migraines that are triggered by even light fragrances
  • Scent-induced queasiness
  • Olfactory hallucinations*
  • Altered sense of taste

During a migraine attack, you might sense smells that aren’t even there.  *Olfactory hallucinations (phantosmia) are a phenomenon that results from migraines, head injury, seizure, Parkinson’s, and stroke.

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Some repeat olfactory offenders

Here are some of the scents that frequently trigger migraine attacks:

  • Coffee
  • Bleach
  • Cologne
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Scented candles
  • Scented soaps, shampoos, and body lotions
  • Laundry detergents and softeners
  • Air fresheners

Are there any scents that relieve headaches?

Some migraine sufferers have found relief with aromatherapy.  Essential oils, whether placed in a shallow pan of water, diluted and rubbed onto your temples, or added to your bath, impart a healing scent that many find therapeutic.  Visit a health-food store, and take a small whiff of their assorted collection of natural essences.  Peppermint and eucalyptus oils are popular for alleviating migraines.  Some calming fragrances are lavender and rosemary oil.

Natural Migraine Treatments: 12 Herbal Remedies that Provide Headache Relief

Here’s what you can do to clear the air

You are not without options in your quest for a scent-free environment.  Here are some good pointers suggested by the Washington Times:

  • If a coworker’s passion for perfume gives you daily migraines, politely explain to her your dilemma, and ask that she (pretty please) wait until after work to apply cologne.  If she refuses, ask your boss to initiate a “no strong smells” policy in your work place.
  • Avoid air fresheners, fabric softeners, and harsh detergents.  Even the ones labeled as “fragrance-free” rarely are.
  • If you tolerate fruity scents, then opt for non-aerosol citrus room spray.
  • Seek out certified organic soaps, shampoos, and other cleaning agents.  All certifiably organic products are free of synthetic fragrances.
  • Become an advocate for a scent-free environment.  Ask anybody you will listen to refrain from using scented products, including your car washer, your kid’s principal, your manicurist- any place you frequent.

Related reading:

10 Clues your should Include in your Headache Diary Today

6 Safe Migraine Treatments for Pregnant Moms


Migraine sensitivity to smells symptoms : an introduction

Surprising things that give you headaches

Fragrance free: 10 Ways to protect yourself from toxic scents

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2 Responses to “Perfumes and Migraines: The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Stinky”

  1. Anonymous says:

    YES!!! I never heard of the term osmophobia but I certainly have it. My issues with fragrances and migraines are so bad. Thanks for posting this.

  2. [...] Trigger foods, such as cheese, chocolate, wine, dried meats, or really anything aged.  Perfumes and Migraines: The Good, the Bad, and the Downright Stinky [...]

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