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 below.
- American College of Physicians. "Managing Migraine: How to Prevent and Control Migraine Headaches." 2006. (July 15, 2012) www.acponline.org/patients_families/pdfs/health/migraine.pdf
- Fragranced Products Information Network. "FPIN Home Page." (July 19, 2012) http://www.fpinva.org/text/index.html
- Invisible Disabilities. "Why Go Fragrance Free?" (July 18, 2012) http://www.invisibledisabilities.org/educate/chemicalsensitivities/whygofragrancefree/
- Mayo Clinic. "Migraine/Causes." (July 15, 2012) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/migraine-headache/ds00120/dsection=causes
- WomensHealth.gov. "Migraine Fact Sheet." (July 15, 2012) http://womenshealth.gov/publications/our-publications/fact-sheet/migraine.cfm#e