Some scented products, such as perfume, laundry soap, cleaning products and air fresheners, can be particularly problematic, Dr. Gill says, but it really varies from person to person.5 That said, it’s difficult to determine precisely which particles are to blame, as companies aren’t required to disclose the chemical formulations of fragrances added to their products (they can simply state “fragrance” on the label). In addition, it is difficult to measure the number of irritating particles that scented products can project into your immediate environment.
Why are some people more sensitive to odors than others?
According to Dr. Patel, there are various reasons why some people are more sensitive to smells than others. For example, people with asthma, allergies, and migraines are more likely to have olfactory sensitivities and aversions, as are people who experience hormonal fluctuations (for example, due to pregnancy or menstrual cycle) or who have some type of endocrine, metabolic, or autoimmune disorder that can cause inflammation in and around the nasal nerves, she explains.6 seven 8
Age also seems to play a role, as many people report that this problem gets worse with age.9 “We know that allergy-triggered migraine increases with age, and so the overall threshold for nervous system sensitization likely increases with age,” says Dr. Patel. That said, symptoms likely diminish after about age 60, as olfactory ability diminishes, says Jonathan Overdevest, MD, PhD, director of Columbia University’s Taste & Smell Center.
There may also be a genetic component – anecdotally, Dr. Patel has seen several odor-sensitive people who claim it runs in their families.ten And Dr. Overdevest adds that certain medications (including antibiotics), time of day and even cultural norms related to aromas can influence how people perceive and react to smells.11
How to find relief if strong smells bother you
If certain scents trigger migraines, treating the migraine itself should help you feel better, says Dr. Gill. You can also try what he calls the “counter-stimulation” technique, which involves sniffing some peppermint (perhaps from an essential oil roll you hide in your bag or desk) or apply a menthol rub under your nose.12 These refreshing scents can act as a counter-irritant by relaxing the trigeminal nerve and providing relief. (Of course, that probably won’t work if peppermint is a scent that usually triggers you.)
If your sensitivity to scents is high enough that your symptoms, such as pain, congestion, nausea, migraines, etc., are interfering with your ability to function, Dr. Patel recommends talking to your primary care physician. They may recommend prescription treatments, such as different forms of steroids or antihistamines, which can block or reduce inflammation in the nose. If your symptoms don’t improve with these remedies, your doctor might suggest nerve-blocking injections, anesthetics that temporarily numb the nerves for a few hours to months, or ablations, which use radiofrequency to permanently destroy the nerves to that they can’t act.