Smell Sensitivity

Parent Q&A

  • I've become very sensitive to certain odors

    (6 replies)

    I never thought in a million years would I write this, but as I have gotten older, I've become incredibly sensitive to certain odors.  Especially certain hair care or perfumes.  What do I do now that my office has hired people that use products that physically give me headaches and cause me loss of concentration? I can't escape!! Any advice is very much appreciated.  

    I hold out little hope in this situation. People feel they have a right to dirty the air.  You may have to find another job. However, here are some thoughts

    Get a room or desktop air purifier from Foust so that you can feel a little better while you work on this. http://www.foustco.com/airpurifiers.html Go completely fragrance free yourself: personal care products, laundry detergent, etc. Every little bit helps. 

    Fragrance sensitivity is actually part of the ADA and your employer is required to make "reasonable accommodations."  However, I think you are likely to lose your job if you go that route. I would instead see if you can find a friendly manager who doesn't use fragrances. Ask if they are willing to email everyone and ask them not to wear perfume or cologne. Also ask if you can post a sign at the front door declaring the office "fragrance free." 

    In addition, join the Environmental Working Group. They are trying to make these toxins illegal. 

    Meanwhile, I am going to beseech readers of BPN. Please don't use fragrances. Ask your friends, family, neighbors and coworkers not to wear fragrances. I can make it very difficult to enjoy a movie, a dinner out, or a class. In addition, it can make it impossible to earn a living. Please be considerate. Many people have this sensitivity. 

    Good Luck!

    I have had this problem since my mid-twenties, so I feel your pain. What you have to do is talk to people and ask them not to wear scents. I've had to do it at least three times at my current job and it's never fun to be in that position. But everyone has been very cooperative with a 1-on-1 polite request. What doesn't work as well is general announcements or emails (I've tried to work through the admins at the office a few times), but it seems the problem people never connect the announcements to what they are wearing. I think they really can't smell it properly, or they wouldn't use so much. Lately I've been having increased problems with laundry detergent scent--the manufacturers seem to think omitting a cloud of scent for weeks on end is a selling point. 

    Dealing with Chemical Sensitivities

    My heart goes out to you. I am a fellow sufferer with chemical sensitivities. The problem begins with governmental agency failure.  The FDA does not require safety testing of personal care or home care products. Fragrances, based on petroleum distillates since at least` the 1970s, are toxic by definition.  They attack everyone’s central nervous system.  You and I just register a reaction.

    Laundry and other home care products can be toxic as well.  For instance, fabric softeners contain three ingredients the EPA has listed as toxic waste in addition to their fragrances. Yet the FDA does nothing to encourage or force manufacturers to change their products. For people with chemical sensitivities like you and me, living is walking a mine field of avoiding exposure.  We can hardly open a magazine or walk into a public restroom with risking a health assault.

    Here is how I have dealt with these problems over the last few decades:

    1. I have talked to the offenders (who are often unaware there is a problem) individually.If you go through the HR Department to get help, you might be out of luck.I have found little sympathy or cooperation there.I have offered to buy products that I can tolerate and bring them into the office for the offenders to try out.For the housekeepers I have employed I have sent them home with laundry detergent and shampoo to use which does not offend me.

    2. Experiment and take notes on what products you can tolerate.My own home is successfully unscented.Here are products I like and where to find them:

    3. Dove unscented bar soap (any big drug store),

    4. Neal’s Yard Bee Lovely Body Lotion – e-mail me for a local US dealer’s name.This product does contain natural orange oils which are subtle and not a problem for me.

    5. Mennen Speed Stick Unscented deodorant (Amazon.com),

    6. Kiss My Face unscented stick deodorant (Whole Foods),

    7. Olive Oil unscented shampoo (Swanson Health Products online),

    8. 365 brand unscented shampoo and conditioner (Whole Foods),

    9. Oasis Laundry Detergent (El Cerrito Natural Foods); this is safe to use as gray water in the garden because it does not contain sodium.

    10. Organic wool dryer balls from New Zealand (available online).

    11. White vinegar and water to clean hard surfaced floors.

      Read more: http://stason.org/articles/wellbeing/health/environment/Fragrance-A-Growing-Health-and-Environmental-Hazard-Part-1.html#ixzz2BqZso39o.  This article and another I can e-mail you spell out the problem.  They might help you negotiate with your HR Department for healthier indoor air.

    Best of luck to you.  Contact me if I can be of further help.

    Pam Condie  

    [email protected]

    I'm not as sensitive as you, but I've had co-workers whose perfume/cologne/hair products I've found distracting.

    If it's causing you illness and lost productivity, I think it's totally legitimate to go to HR about it. It's comparable to a kid having a peanut or dairy allergy (though yours is not life-threatening): a lot of preschools allow peanut products UNTIL the day they have a kid who's allergic. Then they change their policy. If your workplace doesn't have guidelines about strong scents, it's probably just that no one has come to them with a problem yet. You have to be that person.

    If your HR person/department is professional, there should be NO negative repercussions for you. Make it clear that this is not "personal" about the co-workers wearing the scents (in fact, your case will be strongest if you don't even name them); it's all about you being able to get work done and not get sick. If you think it'll strengthen your voice, put together a list or calendar of the days of work you had to miss because of headaches.

    I have the same issue. It's horrible. Some mornings Bart is so bad that I'm nauseous and have a headache for hours. It's really amazing to me that people think that it's okay to bathe in cologne. It got so bad at work that I couldn't even use the restroom some days because a secretary would do her hair in there every day with really smelly products. I used to talk to people about the problem. Good people immediately stop poisoning me. But the secretary (and many others) refused to stop, said that it was her right to do whatever she wanted with scents, screamed at me for being rude, and then complained to her manager about me. I had to ask for a disability accomodation from HR. It involved getting a letter from an allergist (what I have is called nonallergenic rhinitis), working with HR on a new policy, getting the new policy implemented, having my manager help me enforce the policy, and having every secretary in the office complain about it afterwards and say that I was making up the problem. It was unbelievable how these uneducated women decided that because they weren't bothered by scents that no one was. It was brutal but after getting HR and my manager on board, I can finally breathe comfortably at work and all the drama was worth it.

    I am sensitive to scents as well in similar ways plus I have asthma. I have a couple suggestions. One is to speak to your coworkers about the your sensitivity to their haircare products and perfumes. I can understand if you don't feel comfortable talking to your coworkers directly. People can be real [email protected]@holes about their "right" to wear scents. The other thing you might do is  go to human resources and discuss the issue with them. I believe that you have a right to a workplace that doesn't make you sick. I wish you luck and hope people will care enough to make your environment safe for you.

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Archived Q&A and Reviews



Smell hallucinations?

Jan 2007

I'm obviously not looking for a diagnosis, and I do have an appt. to discuss this with my doctor, but wondered if anyone else has had this, or similar, experience - For over a month now, I keep getting the sense that I smell something like honey-vanilla (not precisely, but that's the best I can describe it). It's not unpleasant at all, but there is nothing around with that smell. It's not constant, but often. It's not just in one location - even when I was out of town, so it's not like the car or kitchen smells. And nobdy else smells it, even when specifically asked, so it's not that I'VE started to smell weird. My on-line searches turned up: psychosis (don't think so, and that's usually associated with disgusting smells), seizure disorders (nothing yet), or migrains (I get them very rarely, but haven't with this smell thing). I do have a pretty sensitive nose, and in the past, have occasionally experienced a kind of ''persistence of smell'' for a few days after exposure to a strong smell, but never anything for this long. I also don't recall smelling this specific smell ''for real'' honey do you smell this?


funny: i used to get smell hallucinations all the time when i was younger but come to think of it i haven't had any in a while. can't think of what age they stopped. interesting. please post whatever you find out. your primary care doc probably won't know anything about them (they don't teach us this in medical school) but a neurologist might. kmom
Hmmm... When I first read your post, I thought ''psychosis'' because I had postpartum psychosis, and I totally smelled things, good and bad, very intensely, that weren't around. You said you didn't want a diagnosis, just wondered if anyone had a similar experience. I did experience it, but it was also pleasant smells, along with smells that were so unpleasant I would literally throw up. Let us know what the doctor says. Been there in Berkeley
I started having smell hallucinations a few years ago, and it is always the smell of smoke. Also, when I get exposed to a smoke smell, it may linger for days. I have a very sensitive nose and often smell things other people do not detect until the smell gets very strong. I do not have typical migraines (though I do get bad headaches on occasion now that I am in peri-menopause), but I have had optical migraines and my smell hallicinations may have started around the same time. I would be very interested to hear what you learn, and I hope you will post it in a future ''Advice Given'' for other folks who may experience this. Also having smell hallucinations
One thing that your doctor may tell you is that the smelling of the nonexistent smell may actually BE a seizure (called a simple partial sensory seizure). Not all seizure disorders involve ''grand mal'' (actually called generalized tonic-clonic) seizures and loss of consciousness. Mine involve a weird ''deja vu'' feeling and a physical feeling of anxiety. But they all are seizures -- something happening in the brain due to disordered electrical impulses rather than actual input from the environment. Karen
I also have olfactory hallucinations, only for me it's wood smoke. I was diagnosed with a seizure disorder 11 years ago, and though I'm no longer seizing, I still have this intermittent hallucination about smelling smoke. For the record, seizures can be something other than the grand mal type; smelling something that's not there could be an indicator of a subtle type of seizure. I have been told that olfactory hallucinations are usually due to a neurologic dysfunction, such as seizures, so it's good that you're seeing an M.D. I'm hoping you'll be okay and you just have a quirky sense of smell as I seem to. ''Smokey''
I've been getting smell hallucinations too. The most recent was right after a horrible migraine. I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom when I smelled a very strong odor of ant spray, like RAID. We never use ant spay and don't have any in the house. The next morning the odor was gone. And by the way, the windows were closed all night, so it didn't come from outside. I was also really sensative to regular smells that occur around the house, especially in the kitchen. Everything seemed off, like my brain wasn't computing smells correctly. Sometimes the smells were good smells. But usually the smells were very unpleasant or unusually strong to the point of becoming unpleasant. The only other time I had this kind of problem was when I was pregnant. Maybe my hormones changing as I approach closer to age 50 also effect my sense of smell. It is interesting what one person said in their response to your post, that the smell hallucinations might be a kind of siezure. That certainly makes sense with a migraine. When I get them it definitely feels like there is more going on than just pain and nausea. I can feel the inner workings of my brain going bizerk and fryng my brain cells. Laurey
i posted earlier about smell hallucinations and wanted to follow up on some of the remarks, which were very interesting. just for your information there is an important line of thought in brain research that the dysfunction in migraines, bipolar disorder and some forms of seizure disorder share certain neurologic pathways. in fact, all three of them can be treated w/ seizure medications. maybe i should have worried more about having smell hallucinations when i was younger and having them but since they were only a curiousity and didn't impact my life i never investigated them. and then they went away. come to think of it i was a little bipolary in my thirties and that's when i really noticed them. interesting. anyway, let us know what you find out. kmom

Toddler complaining about smells

April 2006

My 3.5 year old daughter has recently started complaining about smells. Some of it seems real and some of it seems like a way to get attention. The smells that bother her are the air from the car heater, vinyl, toothpaste, daddy (which is the one I think is a put on for attention). Anyone else have this experience? Figured out what to do? Did your child get over it? Perplexed mom


My 3.5 year old daughter has the exact same complaint about smells. She has had this for some time now -- at least a year. I do not think it is just to get attention, although I see how one could think that. She even vomits when confronted unexpectedly with a really strong smell. Like your child, daddy (and even at times mommy) gets complained about, too. I have not found a way to get her over it...I sort of thought this was just one that has to be waited out. sounds familiar
My toddler is doing the same thing! I think that he is just recognizing ways to sort out and talk about the different signals that he picks up from his senses. Because he also asks alot about different noises, ''I hear something!'' What is that?'' and the like. His smell thing can be somewhat embarassing, like when he was standing next to a stranger and said ''I smell something, it is not a good smell.'' Or when he says loudly ''I smell a stinker!'' or in the morning ''your breath is stinky.'' Don't take it personally. They are just trying to sort out and find a context for all of the sensory information coming in that they used to not be aware of. Just give them time, their senses are so new, and they experience them so powerfully and don't yet know what to do with all of the information. mom who knows that sensory integration takes time...

Loss of sense of smell after sinus infection

June 2004

Two months ago, I had a terrible cold which turned into a sinus infection. Since then, I have a greatly diminished sense of smell. I no longer have the infection, but my sense of smell -- always so actue -- is really muted, I used to be able to smell a poopy diaper from across the room; now I can't smell it under my nose. Naturally, my ability to taste food has altered as well. I've been to an ENT who wasn't helpful (he said this sometimes happens with a virus, that there is no cure and I should stop breastfeeding and see if that helps) and I'm scheduled for a second opinion but not for another six weeks. Has anyone else experienced a loss of this kind? Did you fully regain your sense of smell? I'm very upset by this. Not smelling the roses


Some years ago, after a bout of flu that affected my sinuses, I also lost my sense of smell. I, too, couldn't smell a poopy diaper. Over a period of months, I gradually regained my smell. One of my doctors told me that the nerve tissue gradually regenerates in most cases. Luckily, that was the case for me. It took a very long time, though....probably around six or seven months---before my sense of smell was back to normal. I tried acupuncture, but I didn't notice any improvement. I just want to reassure you that it does take a long time...I didn't notice any changes for a few months. deni
I had a bad flu once and lost my sense of smell for several months afterwards. It was miserable because my favorite f! oods all tasted awful! However, I fully recovered eventually and today my sense of smell is as acute as ever. I don't think breastfeeding could have anything to do with it! I'd just have patience and wait a few more months. Good luck!
My sister-in-law had the same thing happen to her. She is also a medical student. Here is what she had to say: yeah, that happened to me, almost exactly the same way (started with a bad cold, increasing congestion and inability to smell/taste for several years). i always had a lot of congestion but she doesn't say if that's the case for her. in any case, there are some tests she could have, if she hasn't already. she could get an endoscopy of her nose and sinuses and/or get a CT scan of her sinuses. that will tell her if she has pus or polyps or just inflammation from chronic sinus infections blocking the tiny area where the chemicals that create smell pass through the nose to the brain. she should also get someone to do a nasal function test (uses sound waves) to see if her septum is deviated and thus making it difficult for her sinuses to drain properly. in my case, it was the initial sinus infection from the cold that started things off, but the deviated septum made it almost impossible for my sinuses to drain, so i got repeated chronic sinus infections, chronic inflammation, loss of smell, etc, etc.

i started off with lots of antibiotics that seemed to help for a while, but the problem was greatly improved by having surgery that corrected my deviated septum. a short course of oral steroids (prednisone for 6 days) can also work wonders (really shrinks the polyps), but if she is nursing, she may not be able to do that right now. i also took allergy medications (still taking them) and allergy shots, but i'm not convinced those did much since my allergies were not very strong to begin with. she could be tested to see if allergies are aggravating the problem (they would precipitate polyp growth). some surgeons go in and open up the sinus drainage holes as well as correcting the septum and some also go in and scrape out the inflamed mucous lining of the sinuses. the last procedure has recently been questioned because it seems that, in some people, that just makes the problem come back worse. topical steroid sprays (! e.g. beconase, flonase, etc.) can also be used with good results although i don't because my surgery left me with a perforation (hole) in my septum and it is too fragile for those sprays. so, the short end of it is, there are a lot of things that can be done to at least define whether there is a fixable problem and there are a lot of treatments out there if so. i think it is the case that sometimes head injury or certain viruses can permanently damage the delicate membrane where the chemical molecules that make up smell are transmitted into chemical signals in the brain (the ethmoid plate), but you can only say that when all other possibilities have been excluded. i don't know if her ENT did any of these tests, but it sounds like he/she is looking for the zebra, not the horse, or just being lazy and dismissive. anonymous


The same thing happened to my mom. She lost her sense of smell after a particularly bad cold/sinus infection. It eventually come back after 2 years. Andrea
Short of seeing an allergist, here's my advice: get out of town and avoid dairy products. After a cold I went months without my senses of smell and taste, to the point that I couldn't taste spoiled milk or smell a fire on my kitchen stove. Then, by accident in May, I left Berkeley for Palm Desert for four days, and happened not to have many dairy products while I was there (except in my pancakes one morning). Away from whatever pollen/dust/? was bugging me in Berkeley, and not exacerbated by milk and ice cream, I immediately improved while in ugh, SoCal. I've been fine ever since, although I still substitute my milk for soy milk when possible. (Eggs, ice cream, etc. seem to be fine.) So starve those sinuses of whatever's inflaming them, and keep breastfeeding! anon