Health and Fitness

Why Are Some People Sensitive to Strong Smells? Hyperosmia, Explained

Certain scented products—such as perfume, laundry soap, cleaning supplies, and air fresheners—may be particularly problematic, according to Dr. Gill, but it really varies from person to person.5 That said, it’s tough to pin down which particles, specifically, are to blame, since companies aren’t required to disclose the chemical formulations of added scents in their products (they can simply list “fragrance” on the label). Plus it’s tricky to measure just how many irritating particles scented products may be shooting out into your immediate environment.

Why are some people more sensitive to smells than others?

There are a variety of reasons why some folks have higher scent sensitivity than others, according to Dr. Patel. For example, people with asthma, allergies, and migraine are more likely to have scent sensitivities and aversions, as are people who are experiencing hormonal fluctuations (say, due to pregnancy or their 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 7 8

Age seems to play a role, too, as many people report this issue getting worse the older they get.9 “We do know that allergy-triggered migraine becomes greater as we age, and so the overall threshold for sensitization of the nerve system probably does increase with age,” Dr. Patel says. That said, the symptoms likely taper off after 60 or so, as smell capacity declines, Jonathan Overdevest, MD, PhD, the director of Columbia University’s Taste & Smell Center, tells SELF.

There may also be a genetic component—anecdotally speaking, Dr. Patel has seen multiple people with scent sensitivities who claim it runs in their family.10 And Dr. Overdevest adds that certain medications (including antibiotics), time of day, and even cultural norms tied to aromas can influence how people perceive and respond 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, Dr. Gill says. You can also try out what he calls the “counter-stimulation” technique, which involves sniffing peppermint (maybe from an essential oil roller you stash in your bag or desk) or applying a menthol rub under your nose.12 These cooling smells can act as a counterirritant by relaxing the trigeminal nerve and bringing relief. (Of course, this probably won’t work if peppermint is a scent that usually triggers you.)

If your sensitivity to fragrances is high enough that your symptoms—like pain, congestion, nausea, migraine headaches, and so on—are interfering with your ability to function, Dr. Patel recommends talking to your primary care doctor. They may recommend prescription-strength treatments, like different forms of steroid medications or antihistamines, that can block or reduce inflammation in the nose. If your symptoms don’t get better with these remedies, your doctor might suggest nerve-blocking injections, anesthetics that temporarily numb the nerves for a matter of hours to months, or ablations, which use radiofrequency to permanently destroy the nerves so they can’t act up.

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