written by: Debbie Roome
• edited by: Daniel P. McGoldrick
• updated: 4/27/2011
The fear of smells or odors is also known as olfactophobia. Here, we'll discuss what causes this fear, what the symptoms are, and how to treat it.
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The Causes of a Fear of Smells
A fear of smells often arises after a person has been in a traumatic situation that is associated with a particular odor. For example the smell of sweat during an assault or the odor of smoke if trapped in a burning building can thereafter evoke a phobic response. In other cases, people may develop a phobic dislike of the smells of certain foods that upset them or the smells given off by certain trees or plants. Many cases of olfactophobia are induced by an unpleasant association with a smell that eventually develops into a phobic fear.
Certain unpleasant smells are sometimes a warning of an impending epileptic seizure, an anxiety attack, or a migraine. The person may fear the odor as it is associated with what they know will follow.
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The Symptoms of Olfactophobia
The fear of smells is characterized in a number of ways with following symptoms:
Groups of smells have been identified that commonly cause fear in susceptible individuals. These include musky, peppermint, pungent, ether, floral, and putrid smells. The majority of smells encountered in daily life are a combination of these groups.
Smells and fragrances are closely associated with human emotion and just as they can create a warm atmosphere and a sense of well being, they can also cause anxiety and fear.
Cooking odors can cause fear and may limit a person’s life as they are afraid to go out to malls or restaurants where the smell of food is always present.
A fear of the odors found in nature such as trees, flowers, grass, and molds can prevent a person from engaging in exercise and walking through open parks and other areas of vegetation.
Some people have a fear that their body odor is offensive and may overuse deodorants/antiperspirants and bathe or change clothes frequently.
When exposed to a feared odor, a person often experiences dizziness, shaking, palpitations, nausea and in extreme cases, they may vomit.
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Treatment for the Fear of Smells
Olfactophobia is a treatable phobia and people do not need to live restricted lives because of their fear of smells. Treatment options include the following:
Psychotherapy looks at where the fear stems from and helps the person learn new behavior patterns to deal with it.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) addresses the triggers of olfactophobia and helps the sufferer learn techniques to manage their fear in the short term while exposure to the fear in controlled settings helps them overcome it long term. An important part of CBT is the process of learning new thought patterns to deal with the fear.
In cases where the fear of smells is associated with another condition such as epilepsy, it is essential to seek medical treatment to control the condition.
Medication can be introduced to relieve the anxiety associated with a fear of smells. There are three preferred types of medicine. Beta blockers reduce the release of adrenaline and address physical symptoms such as shaking and a dry mouth. Antidepressants relieve the feelings of fear and anxiety and benzodiazepines are fast-acting anti-anxiety drugs. Medication may be used alongside therapy to produce the best results in treating olfactophobia.
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The Encyclopedia of Phobias. Fears, and Anxieties, Ronald M Doctor and Ada P Kahn, Facts on File Inc, 2000