I'm just too scentsitive.
January 31, 2008 6:16 PM   Subscribe

Who has a sense of smell as strong as mine? No one nose! Please help me.

Simply put, my extreme sensitivity to odors of any kind is seriously affecting my quality of life. It's like having a superpower, but trust me, it isn't super at all.

Many scents that are just normal to other people (such as light perfume/cologne) are much stronger to me. Scents that are strong (such as cigarette smoke) are totally overpowering and almost unbearable to me. The smells don't make me nauseous or anything, they just really, really, really bother me. This has been going on for pretty much my whole life. I can remember complaining about the smell of my parents' coffee in the mornings because it just seemed so strong to me.

I want to know if there is anything I can do to lessen my sense of smell. Is there any medicine I can take, or natural remedies? I would even go so far as to consider surgery if I knew it would help. I do know that one underlying cause may be a disorder I have that whacks out my hormones (I've heard that some pregnant women have issues with scent sensitivity and I'm pretty sure my experience is similar). However, I don't have much hope of regulating them to a point where it would make any difference in my sensitivity to smells, if that is even the cause. So I'm basically trying to figure out something - anything - that will help make my life a little bit better by taking away (or diminishing, at least) the thing that aggravates me the most.

Anyway... Any advice, shared experiences, natural methods, surgical solutions, websites, anything you can suggest will be greatly appreciated. Thank you in advance.
posted by susiepie to Health & Fitness (28 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I'm like you. I can smell milk in tea and lettuce on a sandwhich. I've done the old Hannibal Lector thing on my husband ("You've eaten curry, but not today...") when he came back from an overseas trip. Perfumes can make me physically sick and hot days with humanity are a torment.

Hormones do seem to make a difference, so I encourage you to at least consider it - a recent change in pill for me due to unrelated issues did seem to back off my sensitivity as an added bonus. The downside was that the few perfumes that I was able to wear quite happily no longer seem attractive to me. It's a weird, weird thing.

For what its worth, I've found that concentrating on something else and just breathing normally will give your nose a chance to become accustomed to a stink (except, interestingly, stinky people - sometimes fleeing the scene is the only way).

I'll be watching this thread with interest.
posted by ninazer0 at 6:33 PM on January 31, 2008

I knew a someone with that in college. She worked summers for a perfume company. It's a talent, a blessing, the nasal equivalent of x-ray vision--and a potential income source. But I can see how it might also be a buden. I'm a dude and even with that nasal handicap this city reeks.

Some kind soul with access to New Yorker archives might turn up a related mid-90s article.

Otherwise, super smeller is the term.
posted by Phred182 at 6:36 PM on January 31, 2008

I have a friend who has an incredibly good sense of smell. The first time I met him, he commented on the smell of my deodorant. He'd often try to guess what I had for lunch and was also thrown off by things like lip gloss scent. He uses it to his advantage. He can tell if people had been drinking, and if anything was off with the room he is in (garbage not taken out, etc). I think he also has febreeze around him quite frequently, for when certain stale scents drove him really crazy. At this point I feel like it's a very definite part of his personality and rather charming in a weird way. Try to embrace it. if there is someone you encounter frequently with heavy perfume, try to explain your situation and see if they can meet you half way.

I just think permanently altering your olfactory sense may have severe consequences. Try to work with your gift.
posted by piratebowling at 6:43 PM on January 31, 2008

For what it's worth, I've had a temporary case of super sense of smell. It was shortly after abdominal surgery and came on while I was still in the hospital. I felt like there wasn't a single breath of air where I didn't smell something intensely. I vividly remember eating a tuna sandwich which ended up tasting like a band aid, trying to force it down because they wanted to make sure I was eating before they'd discharge. I could smell things down the hall that nobody around me could smell as if they were right there under my nose.

Thankfully this lasted only about 4 days and gradually went back to normal on its own. I was driving me up the wall and make it near impossible to sleep.
posted by dereisbaer at 6:55 PM on January 31, 2008

i've had this selectively, mostly in regards to breakfast foods, oddly (coffee-breath, bacon, the smell of eggs frying). it used to affect me to the point of feeling physically ill, but it's dropped off since i started smoking, in my late teens.

but that would seriously be cutting the nose (hah!) to spite the face. that said, if you want to compromise your senses of smell and taste at all costs, it does work.
posted by wreckingball at 6:57 PM on January 31, 2008

Shared experiences, I have: my sense of smell is super-strong, too. Garbage needs to go out every day, I can smell milk in coffee, some perfumes make my nose wrinkle as if they were bleach. And so when I was pregnant and it was even stronger... and I was riding the NYC subway... oh god, that was awful.

I have a hand lotion with a smell I find pleasant, and sometimes will hold the back of my hand up to my nose if I need to cover another smell. Lip balm can work, too.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:02 PM on January 31, 2008

Hi, me. A few months ago I was standing in the kitchen cooking when my husband walked in the front door on the entire other side of the house. "What happened?" I yelled. "You smell exactly like a poopy diaper!" He stared at me with a stunned expression, then said, "I found a tiny little black thing the size of a piece of gravel on the car mat and picked it up and threw it out. Then I thought it might have been a little dried-up poop that came off the puppy, so I used some Purell. That was an hour ago."

The really frustrating thing is that people don't seem to believe in smells because they can't see them. They think I'm just a nutcase. I'm sorry I don't have any advice to offer, just sympathy. It does seem to be getting somewhat better with age.
posted by Enroute at 7:07 PM on January 31, 2008

On the off chance that this helps: Shikai's yuzu-scented lotion is the one I like the smell of. It isn't floral -- it's more like grapefruit -- and isn't too strong, but the smell stays, subtly, a long time.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:08 PM on January 31, 2008

Smells give me migraines, ever since I had meningitis as a early teen. Shops like BodyShop are no-go zones, or only breathe through my mouth can delay it for a minute or two.

Strangely enough, only fake smells trigger it, perfume, sprays etc. Changing baby's nappy, although stinky, does not give me any headaches.

I can not help you with lessening it, I only know how to improve it, and avoiding doing that.
posted by lundman at 7:12 PM on January 31, 2008

My father's like this. He's driven my entire family nuts for most of my life demanding that they not wear perfumes, not go places where there's smoke and even not wash with perfumed soap. He has the double problem of being sensitive both to skin contact with and to the scent of soaps and fabric softeners in laundry.

What I'd say is this: Even apart from the feasibility of controlling your sense of smell, which I can't necessarily address, there's the issue of dealing with other people's scents. There are scent-related behaviors in others you'll be able to influence, and scent-related behaviors in others you won't. If you must address a scent someone else is bringing into your space, try, try try to do it in a well-mannered, well-reasoned fashion. Realize that a huge proportion of people have never experienced what you're experiencing—so to them, requests to change their scent-related behavior (what they wear, what they eat, what they wash themselves and their clothes with) will, sans careful explanation, seem like eccentric demands, rather than what they are, namely an attempt to alleviate something that's truly causing you agony.

(Definitely not trying to imply you're like my father, who's got a lot of other issues apart from his extreme sensitivity to scents. Just noting that unfortunately, because of your heightened sense of smell, you may need to cultivate a diplomacy that many others are never called upon to demonstrate in their dealings with the people around them. Physical disabilities—or, in your case, super-abilities—call upon their bearers to develop superlative strategies for coping with those insensitive to their plight.)
posted by limeonaire at 7:24 PM on January 31, 2008

Perfumers use wool and coffee to clear their olfactory palettes. If you get overwhelmed by a smell, perhaps keeping a film canister of coffee beans or a piece of felt could provide you some solace?
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 7:33 PM on January 31, 2008

My mom has the supernose. I inherited it from her. People tell me that I'm crazy. Last week, I told some cow-orkers that another was pregnant. They said "no way..how can you tell?" I responded that she smells pregnant. The following week, she announced that she was 6 weeks pregnant.

I can smell people in general - not just the smelly ones. I really hate that I can identify who was in the bathroom at work when I enter. Sometimes mystery smells find their way to me just to confuse me. I can also smell colors, but I don't really think of it as synesthaesia.

The only thing that will diminish my sense of smell is to let the catbox go without cleaning for a week, but then, all I smell is catbox and, quite literally, nothing else.
posted by Cat Pie Hurts at 7:34 PM on January 31, 2008

I know someone who can smell when a woman is menstruating. It freaks me out.

Though I've never been a supersmeller, I have noticed that my sense of smell sharpens when I am running... something to do with taking in more air, or maybe it's a byproduct of having fit lungs? And smoking deadens the sense of smell. I don't recommend eschewing physical activity in favor of a pack a day, but that's the only thing I can think of.

I'm not sure how well air purifiers might work, but it could be something worth looking into. If you can find a scent that is pleasant to you, keep it on hand. I've actually found some of the newer, less cloying spray air fresheners to be really light and pleasant, but then again my nose is normal. A perfume-counter trick is to smell the inside of your forearm/elbow if you're overwhelmed by smell and need to clear the palate, so that might work too.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:42 PM on January 31, 2008

I'm a perfumer, and Ambrosia is right - I do use wool and coffee. However, that might not be optimal if you're experiencing hypersensitivity and contrary to popular myth, perfumers do not have an intensified sense of smell, we've just stuck our nose in more stuff and our brain lets us remember smells, which is a different thing from intensified smell.

I would go see an ear, nose, and throat doctor - if you're having that intense of a reaction, an olfactory nerve might be a little too exposed. In the meantime, you might consider taking an ibuprofen or two and see if it reduces swelling around your mucus tissue in your nose; that might temporarily help the sensitivity.
posted by medea42 at 7:43 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Considering loss of smell is a common medical side-effect of a bazillion medications, I wouldnt be surprised if your doctor or even the local pharmacist would know of exactly the drug that would do this without serious consequences. Ask a professional.
posted by damn dirty ape at 7:44 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am the opposite, and my doctor says its related to my adenoids and I could get them removed to clear it up. I can't smell many of the things those around me do, and when I do it's vague. So, some people say "Wow, I can smell jasmine. Oh, look, there's some growing right there!" while I just smell something fresh.

So. It may be related to your sinuses. If you want to "fix" it, go to an ear nose and throat doctor. But let me tell you - you don't want to fix it. Love your nose.
posted by Pants! at 7:49 PM on January 31, 2008

Count me among the nutcases as well.

A faint trace of cigarette smoke, interestingly enough, is nastier than a good solid fug.

Most of the time, I can just put up with the assorted stenches that my fellow humans seem to need to douse themselves in. But there are some that I simply cannot be in the same room with; my eyes water and puff up, my nose runs and I sneeze uncontrollably.

The worst offenders are Lynx and Impulse deodorants. I can tell when somebody wearing one of these horrors has been in the same room, in the last four or five hours, with the book or newspaper I'm now reading even if it's no longer in that room.

A tiny smear of ti-tree oil on my moustache seems to turn down the sensitivity a bit, but I have to go through about a minute of being absolutely overwhelmed by the smell of ti-tree oil first, so I usually don't bother.
posted by flabdablet at 8:03 PM on January 31, 2008

Antihistamines get rid of the puffing and itching and sneezing fairly quickly. But the stenches still stink.
posted by flabdablet at 8:05 PM on January 31, 2008

Oliver Sacks recounts the story of a woman with a problem very like yours-- I believe it was in The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. Her problem was adrenal insufficiency, as I recall, and her hypersensitivity receded when that was corrected. I found a corroborating article which said

A marked increase in olfactory sensitivity has been reported in
humans with adrenal cortical insufficiency (ACI). For example,
Henkin and Bartter (8) reported that patients with ACI could de-
tect, by olfactory cues alone, differences between water and
aqueous solutions of sodium chloride, potassium chloride,
NaHCO3, sucrose, urea, and hydrochloric acid at concentrations
1/100,000 that required by normal subjects.

It goes on to say

Interestingly, daily treatment with the minero-
corticoid deoxycorticosterone acetate failed to decrease the
heightened sensitivity, whereas such treatment with the cortico-
steroid prednisolone returned sensitivity to normal.

I think it could well be that, as you speculate, your PCOS has something to do with this. Perhaps because the adrenal cortex is also a source of androgens, and an excess of those seems to produce undesirable effects of PCOS, your body turns the level of activity of your adrenal cortex down as part of a program to minimize levels androgens as much as possible.

Prenisolone is the active metabolite of prednisone, which has lots of side effects, but is very widely prescribed for many conditions.
posted by jamjam at 8:11 PM on January 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Whoa, I didn't realize you had PCOS! I've been tested and have what seems to be subclinical PCOS, with all the symptoms except overweight and insulin resistance. Hm. The plot thickens. Anyone else?
posted by Enroute at 10:12 PM on January 31, 2008

I can barely smell anything at all and my GP has always fobbed me off when I ask if anything can be done about it. I'd never heard of this link between ACI and olfactory sensitivity and I wonder if it means there's hope for people like me. I can smell bad breath and strong coffee when up close but that's about it. I don't have a clue if I leave the gas on and it worries me.
posted by Dan Brilliant at 2:44 AM on February 1, 2008

Amitriptyline reduced my sensitivity in my nose, sidelined most of my migraines, and helps me sleep. The downside is if I forget to take it I can't sleep at all, but it's not hard to work around that. I've started noticing I'm still smelling the scents and they are registering in my brain someplace, but they come up as thoughts like a mini day dream. Someone will walk into a room and I'll get a flash of oranges and later find out they had an orange earlier in the day, etc.
posted by jwells at 5:35 AM on February 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

yea, i used to work at Avon's global R&D facility. We had a bunch of "noses" on staff. literally a sample of something we were working on would go to them for grading. They could tell exactly what was it in, if it was contaminated, un-wanted chemical reactions, etc. They all played the "you ate this / were near that/ etc. earlier today" game.

If you hone your talent a little bit you could use it to get a job.
posted by Black_Umbrella at 5:56 AM on February 1, 2008

I can't imagine giving up my super sense of smell... I can't imagine it. Certainly it generates unpleasant experiences, but... wow. Never. On the other side, my wife is recently pregnant, and her nose is suddenly walking a little in my world... she doesn't like it either.

What I do: 1. I carry this around with me. It has a lemon odor, but it is very effective in removing everything else.

2. I use air purifiers and fans strategically at home and in the office.

Anecdote: I have a friend, let's call him Friend X. Friend X is a bachelor, and while I like Friend X, his cooking "experiments" and household maintenance habits or lack thereof created an unbearable smell environment in his apartment. It was becoming an issue to the point where I didn't want to go over there. So I convinced him to buy a few tinfoil turkey basting pans and a bag of barbecue charcoal, fill the pans, and put them around the house.

This was an AWESOME strategy. Only a slight odor of charcoal remained.
posted by ewkpates at 6:11 AM on February 1, 2008

Whoa - the PCOS connection! I have PCOS, and have a very similar response to scent, except mine goes beyond being overwhelmed. Certain scents will trigger migraines or cause extreme nausea and dizziness - among them, the horrid stuff known as CK One, as well as natural lavender.

This is the first I've heard of there possibly being a connection to PCOS. Until now, I've always written it off as one of my mildly Aspergerian tendencies, along with the light- and tactile-sensitivity I also have.

No helpful advice to offer, though.
posted by chez shoes at 6:48 AM on February 1, 2008

When a friend stopped doing cocaine all the time, his sense of smell became amazingly acute. I do not advocate this path, however.
posted by herbaliser at 1:17 PM on February 1, 2008

Definitely see the ENT (ear nose and throat). S/he may suggest therapies that don't include surgery.

Ever try walking around with a tissue or handkerchief dabbed with a soothing oil? In case the smells overwhelm you, there's something that would be a comfort.

Incidentally the women in my family are especially sensitive to the smell of blood. It was especially embarrassing to have my mother guess correctly if my friends were menstruating.
posted by sweetlyvicious at 6:19 PM on February 1, 2008

OK, here is a study saying PCOS is associated with adrenal insufficiency:

Objectives: Impaired adrenal function is common in patients with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS). ...
posted by jamjam at 3:02 PM on July 25, 2008

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