Managing Osmophobia or the Fear of Smells

Man holding the bridge of his nose
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Osmophobia, defined in medical dictionaries as a morbid fear of smells, is relatively rare as a stand-alone phobia. However, it is fairly common among those who suffer from migraine headaches. Some migraine sufferers report that their headaches are triggered by strong scents. Understandably, this connection could lead to a fear of smells. Regardless of whether or not headaches are present, however, osmophobia can feel overwhelming.

However, osmophobia is more than just a fear. It is a true phobia whereby fear becomes extreme, and in some cases, irrational. Phobias can have debilitating effects on sufferers that interfere with their ability to complete daily activities.

Osmophobia and Migraines

A 2015 Brazilian study found that of 235 patients with headaches, 147 patients were diagnosed with migraines and 53 percent of the migraine sufferers had osmophobia. The study also found that among the headache patients, those with migraines and a significant number of years of headache history presented more signs of osmophobia.

In some cases, a certain smell can trigger a migraine in the population prone to these severe headaches.


The sense of smell is highly personalized, and what smells wonderful to one person might smell terrible to the next. In addition, odors are heavily linked to memories of past experiences. Smelling Grandma's favorite perfume or the flowers that were in bloom the day you proposed to your wife can trigger a sudden flood of positive memories. Likewise, those suffering from osmophobia may be triggered by a wide range of possible scents.


  • Extreme anxiety
  • Dry mouth
  • Rapid breathing
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Excessive sweating
  • Inability to articulate words or sentences
  • Shaking or trembling
  • Shortness of breath

Osmophobia and Other Disorders

Besides migraines, osmophobia is sometimes related to other disorders. For example, those with chemophobia, or the fear of chemicals, may have a strong aversion to any chemical odor. People with a fear of animals might react strongly to any animal scents. Those who are afraid of water may be sensitive to the smell of the ocean.


Like any phobia, osmophobia that is unrelated to a medical condition generally responds well to a variety of therapeutic techniques. Systematic desensitization, in which you are gradually exposed to the feared scent, is particularly helpful. If your osmophobia is related to migraines, however, let your therapist know. Your doctor will need to be involved in your treatment to ensure that you do not worsen your headaches.

Other Treatments 

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  • Mainardi FMaggioni F,  Zanchin G. Smell of Migraine: Osmophobia as a Clinical Diagnostic Marker? Cephalalgia. 2016 Jul 4. pii: 0333102416658710. [Epub ahead of print]
  • Rocha-Filho PAMarques KSTorres RCLeal KN. Osmophobia and Headaches in Primary Care: Prevalence, Associated Factors, and Importance in Diagnosing Migraine. Headache. 2015 Jun;55(6):840-5. doi: 10.1111/head.12577.

By Lisa Fritscher
Lisa Fritscher is a freelance writer and editor with a deep interest in phobias and other mental health topics.