What to Read Next

Your Fragrance May Be Giving You a Migraine

Joanna Douglas
Senior Editor
August 28, 2014

Photo: Trunk Archive

I’ve had bad headaches since middle school, when I had to skip dance classes and birthday parties because of the overwhelming pressure in my head. I could always tell when it was about to storm because changes in barometric pressure made me feel groggy, weak, and desperate for Advil. But it wasn’t until my 20s that I realized I was experiencing migraines, most of which were triggered by strong smells. If you guessed that’s a big problem given my job, you’re right.

The upside, however, is I have access to people who can explain why some scents, fragrant shampoo for example, make me want to crawl into bed while the chemical smell of paint doesn’t make me flinch. Merle Diamond, managing director of Diamond Headache Clinic and board member at the National Headache Foundation, says, “People with migraines have a more sensitive nervous system that’s easily stimulated.” It turns out scent triggers migraines for many people, lowering their headache threshold.

Then came the scary part: once your brain and smell sensors process the scent, Diamond says it’s integrated in to your cerebral cortex, creating a memory of the scent. The more often you smell that specific trigger the less that irritant can be tolerated. Basically, one whiff will eventually send you over the edge. So if you’re thinking you should start shopping around for unscented products—you’re right. 

“The real problem today is everything is scented,” says Diamond. “Your lotion is scented. Your tissues are scented. So if you’re not sure how you’ll react to an odor, look for labels marked ‘unscented’ to create a neutral environment. It may sound boring, but the blander the better.” Diamond says one of her particularly sensitive patients wore a gas mask to her office—so it’s good to know there’s a more drastic option out there, should it come to that.