Can perfumes trigger migraines?

Perfume bottle.
It smells so nice, but it can make your head hurt so badly.
Jeffrey Hamilton/Getty Images

We've all experienced the pounding of a headache. But how do you know if it's a garden variety pain brought on by stress or a sinus infection or allergies, or if it's something else, say, a migraine? And if it's a migraine causing the problem, how was it triggered? Look around -- the answer could be right on your dresser. As crazy as it may seem, your favorite perfume may be causing those painful headaches. So, grab a cold compress and see what you can do to ease your own sick headaches (as migraines are often called) or those of someone you love.

Migraines most often mimic sinus headaches. In fact, some people who complain of sinus headaches find they really suffer from migraines. The most similar symptom is a pounding in the sinus area. But most migraines have additional symptoms that distinguish them from other types of headaches.


Most often migraine pain begins in the morning on one side of the head. A migraine can last for several hours or up to three days. Pain varies from medium to debilitating, and can be accompanied by nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, thus the "sick headache" label. An increased sensitivity to light, sound, sudden movements and even smells -- including perfume -- can intensify the problem, sending a migraine sufferer to a dark, quiet room until the migraine passes.

The mechanics that occur in the brain to make some people suffer from migraines are still unclear, but a couple of things are known. Migraines seem to be both hereditary and environmental. A person may inherit a tendency toward migraines, then have a set of triggers that cause them.

According to the Mayo Clinic, uncontrollable triggers include:

  • Weather
  • Air pressure
  • Hormonal changes for women

Controllable triggers include:

  • Stress
  • Lighting
  • Food
  • Smoke
  • Loud noises
  • Changes in sleep
  • Medications
  • Smells (including perfume)

On the next page we'll look more closely at the perfume trigger, talk about what you can do to figure out what triggers your migraines (which isn't easy), and finish up with a little about treating or preventing migraines.


Perfume and Migraines

Smells -- bad or good, sweet or sour -- can trigger migraines in some people. Often it's an unusual smell or a particularly intense one, such as perfume, paint thinner or secondhand smoke, that acts as the trigger.

But what is it about perfumes that trigger migraines? How can those sweet smelling fragrances cause such trouble? One theory is that as perfumes and fragrances have become more common -- in detergents, soaps, lotions and shampoos, for example -- and based more on chemical compounds than on natural oils and other natural products, they cause more health problems, including migraines. So, it might not be the scent itself, but the chemical construction of and the increased exposure to the scent that leads to the migraines. Once the migraine is triggered by perfume or any other smell, it develops along the same path as a migraine triggered in any other way.


So, how do you figure out what triggers your migraines?

Keep a migraine diary. Every time you experience a migraine, note information such as the time of day it begins, day of the week and how long it lasts. Record the food and drink you had over the past 24 hours, any other possible triggers, like exposure to perfumes or other smells or bright lights. Keep up with any relief measures you tried, such as pain relievers or homeopathic remedies, and whether or not they worked.

Take this information with you to your doctor, who can help you identify the possible triggers and recommend treatment to ease or reduce your migraines. If perfume is identified as your trigger, lifestyle changes may be the first treatment a doctor recommends. He or she may tell you to stop wearing perfume or using perfumed deodorants or detergents. The doctor may also suggest you ask any co-workers or friends who wear a perfume that triggers your migraines to stop wearing it when you're around.

In addition to reducing attacks through lifestyle changes, two types of medication are available for perfume-triggered and other migraines. Over-the-counter acute medications can stop a migraine that's in progress; if they don't work, ask your doctor about prescription drug possibilities.

Preventive medicines taken daily can actually help keep migraines from happening in the first place. Ask your doctor about prevention drugs (some beta blockers and anticonvulsants may help) if you suffer from debilitating migraines that cause you to miss work or other activities or if your migraines don't respond to acute medication.

To learn more about migraines, head to the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • American College of Physicians. "Managing Migraine: How to Prevent and Control Migraine Headaches." 2006. (July 15, 2012)
  • Fragranced Products Information Network. "FPIN Home Page." (July 19, 2012)
  • Invisible Disabilities. "Why Go Fragrance Free?" (July 18, 2012)
  • Mayo Clinic. "Migraine/Causes." (July 15, 2012)
  • "Migraine Fact Sheet." (July 15, 2012)