How Do Odors Impact Migraine Sufferers?

Migraine headaches may be linked to odors in several ways. But it’s complicated.

Most people have probably had a “what’s that smell?” moment. But for some migraine sufferers, odor may play a big role in the quality and occurrence of their head pain.

Osmophobia, or a heightened sensitivity or aversion to smells, is a commonly reported symptom of migraine headaches. Researchers continue to look for answers regarding why intense smells or odors may make migraines worse for some sufferers, why some people report that smells or odors trigger their migraines, and how an odor can even be part of an aura that comes before a migraine. But research remains inconclusive. Let’s take a look.

Understanding Odor Sensitivity and Migraines

A range of smells and odors have been found to be problematic for some migraine sufferers such as:

  • Perfume
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Paint thinner
  • Cleaning products
  • Car exhaust
  • Gasoline

Data varies, but clinical studies report that anywhere between 25 and 50 percent of migraine sufferers experience a heightened sensitivity to odors during their migraine headaches, and up to 50 percent report that strong smells or odors can trigger acute migraine attacks. 1 2 3

Specific odors that may lead to a migraine can vary among individual sufferers, and even from headache to headache for one individual. For example, in a small study of 60 women with migraines, 63 percent (38 people) reported that odors triggered their migraines; however, only about a third of those women had headaches consistently caused by the same odor all the time. 4

Why may odor be such an issue for some? Compared to those without migraines, migraine sufferers can be more sensitive to things in their environment such as light, sound, and odor. With respect to odors, this extra sensitivity is due to increased activation of specific scent and pain receptors in the brain.  Although more studies are needed on the full mechanisms linking odor to migraines, areas within the brain that process odors include regions directly involved in migraine headaches and pain perception. 5

A Rare Type of Aura

Although migraine aura most commonly appears as a visual disturbance, infrequently, a migraine aura may take the form of an olfactory hallucination — in other words, smelling something that isn’t there. This type of aura does not occur often (it’s documented in less than one percent of migraine sufferers), but reports of the sensation include specific, identifiable scents such as wood or cigar smoke, burnt plastic, fish tanks, cat food, and specific burnt or rotten foods. 6

Does Odor Affect Your Migraines?

Sensitivity or aversion to smells during your headaches are important symptoms that you should discuss with your doctor. Links between odors and your migraines may help identify your triggers and assist you and your physician in better understanding your attacks.

One way to help determine whether odors are a migraine symptom or trigger for you is to keep a migraine diary and share it with your doctor.

Show References

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1.       Stankowitz A, May A. Increased limbic and brainstem activity during migraine attacks following olfactory stimulation. Neurology. 2001;77(5):476-482. http://www.researchgate.net/publication/51508299_Increased_limbic_and_brainstem_activity_during_migraine_attacks_following_olfactory_stimulation

2.       de Lima AM, Sapienza GB, Giraud VD, Fragoso YD. Odors as triggering and worsening factors for migraine in men. Arq Neuropsiquiatr. 2011;69(2):324-327. http://www.scielo.br/pdf/anp/v69n2b/v69n2ba11.pdf

3.       Friedman DI, De Ver Dye T. Migraine and the Environment. Headache. 2009;49(6):941-952. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1526-4610.2009.01443.x/pdf

4.       Sjostrand C, Savic I, Laudon-Meyer E, et al. Migraine and olfactory stimuli. Curr Pain Headache rep. 2010;14:244-251. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs11916-010-0109-7#page-1

5.       Schwedt TJ. Multisensory integration in migraine. Curr Opin Neurol. 2013;26(3):248-253. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4038337/

6.       Coleman ER, Grosberg BM, Robbins MS. Olfactory hallucinations in primary headache disorders: case series and literature review. Cephalalgia. 2011;31(14):1477-1489. http://cep.sagepub.com/content/31/14/1477.full.pdf+html

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