Does Anyone Else Get Headaches from Smells?

Is it even possible to have a migraine, or a just a basic headache, that’s triggered merely by smelling something? Or is this some psychosomatic illusion?

I’m well-acquainted with migraine and lesser tension headaches. This plague runs through my family tree like a straight-line wind storm. I remember my first migraine. I was 10 years old and eager for a much-anticipated carnival day at school. I felt as if I’d been stricken with some rare sort of food poisoning whose primary symptom was brain compression. The school ordered me home despite my protests that I could recover in time for the carnival. The janitor held a can of sawdust as he walked me to the nurse’s office, where I rested in the cool dark until my dad arrived to take me home.

I’ve been lucky in having few migraines compared to some of my relatives, but I do live with the persistent threat of tension headaches. I’ve learned to avoid many of my triggers for such headaches (by the way, relaxing neck and shoulder muscles several times a day does wonders to stave off tension headaches). Unfortunately, it’s hard to avoid some scents that seem to have a noxious effect.

I wish I knew which substances caused this oddball scent reaction. At least I am not sensitive to some ordinary odors, like my daughter is. While she has not complained that certain smells give her headaches, she does protest that something as humdrum as a pork tenderloin smells like “rotten bologna with just a trace of spice!”

While I find many scents annoying, there are only a few that trigger headaches. Anything noxious like mineral spirits are a no-no, but thank goodness I’ve not made a hobby of restoring wood furniture.

This issue is mostly confined to certain colognes and perfumes. Some scent felons include Poison by Christian Dior and Polo by Ralph Lauren. I’d like to know what their common ingredient is that makes my head feel like it is being compressed to a pinpoint.

Does anyone else have this problem?

2 thoughts on “Does Anyone Else Get Headaches from Smells?”

  1. I have had many migraine headaches over the years. Now I mostly have silent ones. This drove me to see an eye doctor because I thought something was wrong with my eyes. It starts as an aura and then becomes an ever increasing kaleidoscope that you can’t see through and then lessens and disappears. Scary but not painful. Now I think I may be having both.


    1. The author/neurologist Oliver Sacks had migraines with aura and referred to them many times in his books. I haven’t had one like that, but I think that many people who get frequent migraines get those, too.


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