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HeadWay Issue #224 👃 Do These Smells Bother You?
June 21, 2023

In this issue:

Do These Smells Bother You?

Say what?! Fetid

👃 Do These Smells Bother You?

A recent study is shedding light on a common complaint of migraine patients - odours in the environment. Let's see if you can relate to any of these smells that bothered patients in the study.

Most Common Offenders

First, let's look at the most common odours that bothered people with migraine, then we'll take a closer look at the details.
  1. Perfumes
  2. Body odour/sweat
  3. Tobacco
  4. Fabric Softener
  5. Garbage
  6. Hair products
  7. Automobiles
  8. Garlic
  9. Rice
  10. Grilled Fish
  11. Alcohol
  12. Excrement
  13. Machine oil
  14. Vomit
  15. Chemicals
You can see the full list here. I combine "body odour" with "sweat" in my list of the top 15.

You may not have thought of "rice" as a major offender. For many people it is - however, this was a Japanese study. So some of the items are higher on the list simply because of the location and culture. We'll get back to that in a moment.

Another part of the study - Where do people struggle most with offending smells?
  1. Office
  2. Home
  3. Restaurant
  4. Train
  5. Town
  6. Department Stores
  7. Hospital waiting rooms

What Bothers Whom?

The study came up with some interesting facts about what types of odours tended to bother certain people. For example:
  • Younger patients were more bothered by tobacco and soap smells
  • Patients with chronic migraine were more likely bothered by fabric softener, sweat, socks, coffee, excrement, vomit, and animal smells. They were also more bothered by floral scents, and cleaning products in general.
  • Only women listed garbage and body odour as offenders
  • The most common "categories" tended to be "fetid odors" (bad smells, like excrement and body odour), "cooking products" (including certain foods), and "oil derivatives" (such as machine oil, and even body odour and tobacco)

Let's talk...

Are these triggers? Maybe. The authors of the study actually believe that most of the time these odours become bothersome in the early stages of migraine (before the headache), so they may more like warning signs that the migraine attack has started.

But either way, they're a problem for migraine patients.

Study authors also acknowledged that the order of the list may change with your situation. Japanese women are more likely to take out the garbage - perhaps that's why garbage is so high on the list for women. You might change the list order because of your own circumstances.

This list is an interesting curiosity, but is it anything else?

I think it can be a help, and here's why. First, sometimes we're bothered by something but don't even think about it consciously. This list may help with that. Second, it gives us a starting point to try to minimize certain odours.

The fact that much of the problem seems to be home and office also gives us a literal starting place.

For example, why not try some products with a non-floral scent? Are there ways to minimize body odour? Could you have food in the freezer that you don't need to cook on a day when it might bother you more? Would it be helpful to bring up the topic of perfumes at work, or somehow minimize your exposure?

There's no way to avoid every smell that bothers you. But you can minimize some of them. Also, think about the place that you go when your attack is really bad (typically a bedroom). What odours are there that could be limited?

I will certainly be thinking about these things as I improve my own environment. I hope this has been helpful for you.

There are many more details in the study itself, which can be found here: Classification of odors associated with migraine attacks: a cross-sectional study

Say what?! Fetid

Something that is fetid has a bad odour, it smells stinky, it's unpleasant or offensive.

Yes, fetid is my word of the day. But there is an interesting debate about why something smells bad. Basically, are there odours that we innately consider bad, because of genetics, for example? Or do we learn to like or dislike every smell?

For example, some people can't stand the smell of a skunk, others like it (see here). What if a migraine patient finds (unconsciously) that a certain chemical makes their migraine attack worse, and so they come to dislike that smell? In other words, there may be a reason, even though the smell itself isn't necessarily a problem for everyone.

It's an interesting debate, but it leaves us with the same advice for migraine patients - generally, it's good to minimize exposure to odours that bother you during an attack. Because they're downright fetid.

Thanks for reading!  Remember, if you have feedback or ideas for future issues, visit the HeadWay MailRoom.  Your password is nomoache.
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