What’s That Smell?

What’s That Smell?

Christine Tender Points

It’s nearly as difficult to explain multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS) to someone unaffected by it as it is to explain fibromyalgia. To the uninitiated, it seems impossible that an odor could cause physical symptoms, such as headache, nausea, fatigue, confusion, and dizziness — especially when the odor isn’t even a particularly unpleasant one.

I’m not talking about skunks here. I’m talking about things as innocuous as fragrances people choose to wear.

I once worked in an office where a co-worker wore Polo cologne. To my delicate nostrils, this was chemical warfare. This man’s mailbox was adjacent to my desk, so several times each day he came in to check for contents. The stench was dizzying to me. It was immediately absorbed into my mucous membranes, and I could taste that smell for the rest of the day, no matter how hard I tried to mask it with coffee, Lifesavers, or unscented air freshener. My eyes watered, my nose ran.  I often felt anxious and quite woozy.

He was a nice person, and he had worked there far longer than I had. I agonized over my decision to take action, but I finally had no choice. It was either him or me. Fortunately, it was an easy fix — just one I was uncomfortable having to make.

Similarly, whenever nearby offices were being painted, I would arrange to take vacation time — not telling anyone that the smell of paint fumes was the reason. The summer they tarred the roof, I was very thankful for air conditioning. If the windows had been opened, I never would have made it till the fall.

Today, MCS is a recognized disorder.  I’m no longer alone with my overactive nose. The National Academy of Sciences estimates that up to 15 percent of the U.S. population is affected. It is frequently found in people with fibromyalgia. Today’s workers can expect to be taken seriously should they be affected by MCS.  In fact, fragrance-free workplaces have become common.

Unfortunately, strong odors are not limited to the workplace.  I recently returned both a tufted headboard and a leather armchair I bought. Strong chemical smells were emitted by the materials used. Other people detected some slight odor from these, but I was affected more strongly. Sleep was impossible next to that headboard. I could taste the smell all night and choked back nausea until morning. I was unable to relax in that easy chair. In addition to anxiety, it caused nausea and dizziness. I could smell them in the back of the house as soon as I opened the front door.

My defense is to avoid odors in every way possible. I buy only organic or fragrance-free grooming and cleaning products. Thanks to the internet, I no longer need to troll the grocery store’s smelly soap aisle for my odor-free products. I’ve informed friends and family about my problem, and they’ve been wonderfully compliant.  I schedule challenging places, like hair and nail salons, early in the day before the odors build up.

Ironically, I often find doctors’ offices are some of the worst offenders. The disinfectants they use often leave a strong-smelling residue. I don’t hesitate to inform the staff that I would prefer to wait in the waiting room. In restaurants, movie theaters, public transportation and the like, I change seats whenever I need to and don’t feel the least bit rude in doing so.

My feeling is that the air we breathe is for all of us. I don’t pollute yours. You don’t get to pollute mine.


Note: Fibromyalgia News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of Fibromyalgia News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to fibromyalgia.


  1. StevefromMA says:

    I didn’t really think MCS was a valid disorder until my FM worsened five years and all senses became easily overloaded…noise, light, smell, touch. My wife can’t believe I can smell shampoo on her hair from across the room and I felt like choking when I use a room in which she’d dosed herself with perfume. No one gets pain, hypersensitivity, etc. unless they have it, even me in the past. I hate soaps or scents, especially floral, citrus are somewhat better. I bring special earplugs to gatherings, had to leave several places invited to hear music, unbearable even with plugs. Throwing open window to let sun in in AM…not for me.

  2. Kathy says:

    Don’t we have a bizarre condition?! I avoid large crowds due to the different smells and noises. flourescent lighting bothers me too. I would love to have the old me back and be able to go out and do the things I used to do. Thank you fibromyalgia for taking my life away from me. I tried to explain to my doctor about the anxiety. He asked if I thought something was going to happen to me. I told him it was hypersensery overload. Bless his heart, he’s learning right along with me.

  3. Cindy Brown says:

    Does anyone have issues with cooking odors? If anyone in my house has been cooking, even hours before I arrive, I’m nauseous the moment I open the door. I can’t eat, or do anything! I hate Fibro!!

  4. It is not the smell per se, it is the chemicals that are causing MCS, etc. Talking only about smell may imply that those conditions could or are purely psychological in nature and not physical. Some people thus affected have been required to have psychological treatment or some have even been institutionalized.

  5. Najla says:

    OMG! I did not know MCS existed until now!
    I have the same reactions to smell since childhood. I remember fainting every time I needed bloodwork , what my mother considered to be fear . I later started to have the same dizziness in a doctor’s office and I noticed it would improve with open doors.
    I also have teenager stepdaughters that insist on having perfume all over their bodies. I once had an ashtma attack from it.
    When traveling abroad, the smell of sewage in one river caused me migraines. And I am also super sensitive to body odors.
    Well, one more fibro symptom I have been having my entire life. Nothing new but it is good to have a name for it.

  6. veganmcser says:

    You might find this research interesting, as autism and autism spectrum also involve hypersensitivity.http://www.oapublishinglondon.com/article/611 We are surrounded by a solvent world worst than almost any time in history with neurotoxic and cancer causing capabilities thus the cellular increase in illnesses. Almost all labeled “trade secrets”. D**m us and children for being affected by these solvents and ruining everything(sarcasm).

  7. Julie says:

    The woman in the picture looks exactly like I feel when I’m having a reaction to a chemical odor. Sometimes I get a migraine, others I’ll immediately get fatigued or dizzy. Sometimes a combination of those 3 symptoms. It’s maddening, especially when trying to concentrate at work.

    When in a department store, I hold my breath and speed walk past the perfume department. LOL! Been doing that for 10 years.

  8. MCS Sufferer says:

    People with MCS have reactions to chemicals, not smells. Some of the chemicals they react to have no odour. Some people with MCS have no sense of smell. If your problem is just smells you could solve it by stuffing cotton wool up your nose.

  9. Stephanie Gilbert says:

    So, I’m not crazy?!? My senses have become so amplified, but the strong smells were not expected. I broke my nose 4 times (age 7-16), and had lost my sense of smell after the first or second break… it came back when the fibro hit when I was 23! I have severe chronic migraines as well, and the light/sound is extremely sensitive, but the smells… OMG, they can knock me over, especially strong perfumes. Certain smells, some good some not so good, can completely take over my body and stop me in my tracks, making me so nauseas and my headaches worse. SO glad to hear I’m not the only one, and that this is an actual “thing”!

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