You know that co-worker whose perfume smells really bad? Or that friend’s house that reeks of dirty socks? If you can’t stand these smells and they give you headaches, you may not just be overly-sensitive to bad odors, you may actually suffer from a chemical intolerance.
According to a new study from psychology researcher, Linus Andersson, at Umeå University, normally our smell perceptions diminish pretty quickly after we first get a whiff of a friend’s scent of her apartment. Most people tend to notice a smell as soon as we enter the door, but then the smell goes away. For the lucky people with a chemical intolerance though, that smell persists. And in some cases, we perceive that it’s getting stronger.
This hypersensitivity is due to our brain activity. People without a chemical intolerance showed a reduction in brain activity to certain smells over a period of time, while those with an intolerance did not. The inability to grow accustomed to certain smells was seen by heightened reactions in the brain, leading researchers to believe that it’s not all in our heads–or noses, as the case may be. Being intolerant to certain smells is something we are hard-wired for.
The study also showed that sensitivity to smell impacts the entire body, including the nose and mouth. Chemically intolerant people react stronger to substances that irritate the mucous linings of their nose and mouth, and they cough more when they inhale something like capsaicin, the hot compound in chili peppers. Interestingly enough, the researchers also report that up to 10% of the Swedish population are bothered by everyday smells, whereas roughly 2% experience severe symptoms.
I’ve always thought I had a smell disorder. Certain perfumes and colognes, in particular, really bother me. I get headaches and am just generally grossed-out by their strong smells. My husband usually doesn’t notice the smells I do, leading him to believe that I smell things that aren’t really there–sort of a phantom smeller, I guess. But, I was the first to detect a dead squirrel in our attic once. I am able to determine that certain foods have gone bad in our refrigerator the minute I walk in the door. And I can be downstairs and tell if our kids have dirty laundry upstairs that hasn’t made its way to the washer yet.
Of course, this hypersensitivity also comes with certain downfalls. I must confess that I once threw out my mother’s “God-awful” perfume and claimed I didn’t know what happened to it, simply because I couldn’t take it anymore. I’ve also changed seats at the movie theater more than once to get away from “old lady” or “old man” smells. And one time I even had to ask an employee to stop wearing her perfume to work. I mean, it trailed behind her like Pigpen.
But, at least now, thanks to science, I can say I have a medical explanation for my “rude”behavior.