Scent Triggered Migraines


A woman in one of my support groups works retail and jogged my memory about why I quit working for the box store that requires employees to wear red shirts. But that got me thinking about scent triggered migraines. Because it has been a constant problem my entire life.

Everyone wants to smell nice or at least, not smell like body odor. But it’s very easy to overdo it and make people sick. Both my after high school office jobs had problems related to scent triggered migraines. Things that can trigger migraines or severe asthma attacks are any and all perfumes, colognes, scented hand lotions, heavily scented deodorant (you know who you are Old Spice and Axe lovers)… and so do I because standing near you for five minutes can and will make me sicker than a dog. Along with cleaning supplies, aerosol air fresheners, non-aerosol air fresheners (Febreze Vent clips for cars are the bane of my existence), certain laundry detergents and fabric softeners (Gain is the worst offender for me here), and bizarrely some nasal sprays (Why does Flonase smell like roses? That is the weirdest design ever and a single spray is enough to trigger a migraine for me).

When I worked for the Missouri Department of Health, I actually hung a sign on my cubicle that said “I have scent triggered migraines, if you are wearing perfume, cologne, use scented lotion, or have masked your scent in some other way, please do not come into my cubicle, I will come out to you and we will talk in a well ventilated area.” You’d think working for a state health department would have people be a little more understanding. Nope. Our head secretary was the worst offender. I don’t know what perfume she wore, but it smelled like amber, lavender, and something fruity (and possibly dead). And it was always a huge problem for me. I would wheeze and get migraines if she stood too close to me.

The first time I got in trouble for my attendance issues, I brought that up. And it wasn’t just her, many of the ladies I worked with kept Bath & Body Works lotion on their desks. There was a note from a doctor in my file about scent triggered migraines. It basically explained them and said I was a chronic sufferer and that even cut flowers could trigger them in me. Anyway, when I brought up my scent triggered migraines, my director (who was not my immediate supervisor) told me tough, he couldn’t order people to stop using scented lotions or wearing perfumes and he wouldn’t make them stop using aerosol cans of air freshener in the building.

Some of the ladies were very understanding and stopped using their smelly lotions in the office. Some were not. Then my boss directly got involved, he was a medical doctor turned epidemiologist. And it was then that I realized the head secretary was out to get me. It sounds paranoid and illogical, but I’m positive it was the case, even looking back 20 years later. She brought in a bottle of perfume to keep at her desk. She started bringing in fresh flowers every day, not just a bouquet of mixed flowers, but bouquets made entirely of lilies, roses, lavender, and jasmine. Those four flowers are some of the strongest scented cut flowers you can get. And rarely do they get put together in bouquets in high numbers. The perfume was also a new touch. I knew she wore it everyday, I could smell it, but she hadn’t brought it in to apply before then. And apply it she did, while sitting in her cube, twice a day.

Then I was hospitalized for a migraine I couldn’t get rid of. It was really bad. When I got out, I was put on self-inject DHE. And another doctor’s note was added to my file. My doctor was convinced something in the building was triggering my constant migraines. My boss was very understanding of all this, my department head was not. When I was hospitalized a second time for a migraine I could not get rid of, I was written up for my absences. When I returned to work the following week, my department head call me into a meeting in which he informed me I obviously had too many problems to work in an office environment and I should consider applying for disability. I was 20 years old and I reminded him that the biggest problem was my scent triggered migraines and my complaints from earlier about people applying perfumes and heavily scented lotions as well as using air fresheners in the office and again he told me I’d just have to tough it out.

At that point, I realized my days were numbered. My boss took a promotion to head of Epidemiology and I found a new job at a local county health department. Enter clients that wore heavy perfumes and colognes and smelly lotions. I was in hell. I worked there for a year and then my young, naive, self went back to work at the Missouri Department of Health. I was told it would be better this time. The head secretary had been moved to a different division.

It was absolutely not better. The new secretary that sat in the cube next to mine was also a fan of scented lotions and perfume. I talked to her about it, she told me I was being ridiculous. And the battle began again. The head secretary came back to that division as well. Now I was dealing with two of them and being thirty feet away from the head secretary wasn’t far enough. Especially after the woman I shared a cube wall with began bringing in car air fresheners (those little tree like things) and hanging them around her cube. Her favorite scent seemed to be pine.

I’d been back less than 3 months, when the Imitrex incident happened. My cube wall sharer decided to get ready for a lunch date sitting in her cube. The perfume began to spritz, the hair spray aerosol can came out, and she decided to spray her entire outfit with fabric spray, in her cubicle. I got so sick. She left for lunch and I ended up sprawled on the floor of my cubicle trying not to die. Or hoping to. I had just been changed to Imitrex nasal spray and had never taken it before that day. I took a dose because I knew I was on thin ice and couldn’t go home. And had severe heart pains as a side effect. I was rushed to the ER. My heart was checked and I was sent home, but I couldn’t drive myself. One of my coworkers took off to drive me home. I was out for three days.

When I returned I was immediately notified that I had an appointment with the department head that morning at 8:30. Great. Maybe they will finally see that this is a serious matter. Nope, I was told there were layoffs happening and I wasn’t among those being laid off, but one of the other secretaries that I liked was, because she had 2 months less seniority than me. She was also a single mom of a couple of kids and she had been willing to stop bringing in smelly lotions to apply at her desk. It was artfully phrased, no I wasn’t being terminated that day, but someone else was, and I had a choice, I could give her my job, or I could keep my job knowing that I was going to continue to have problems.

I gave her my job, was walked out by security, and started college a few months later. Since I was technically “laid off” I got to draw unemployment for a few months, and it was during that time that I started thinking I should go to college. About two years after I left, I was contacted by a lawyer. A former coworker was suing the Department of Health because their practice of “smelling nice” had triggered an asthma attack so severe she’d been hospitalized for numerous weeks. And even though she had worked there for 10+ years, they had “laid her off” during her time in the hospital. I believe she eventually dropped the lawsuit. After the first phone call I heard nothing about it again and it never showed up in the news.

Thinking back, I realize I should have sued them. They could have issued a ban on all air fresheners in the office and a meeting could have been held where smelly things were discussed. I don’t think anyone’s intent was malicious when it started, I think that as I pushed more and more to get the environment fixed, it became malicious, mainly because my condition was not understood.

It ended well, I went to college, got a degree or two, still have problems with scent migraines and now work at a career in which I don’t have coworkers to torture me with perfumes and smelly lotions. But it’s something to keep in mind if you work in an office or when you are getting ready for a date. I’ve known plenty of waitresses and other service workers in my life that have the same problems (migraines or asthma related to strong flowery smells such as perfumes and lotions). Your attempts to smell nice, may in fact, be making someone else sick.

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