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Q&A: Gag Reflex in Response to Smells?


My 7-year-old daughter has global developmental delay, but the most recent and difficult to address is her gag reflex in response to smells and sometimes even just the sight of food. We had to leave a fair the other day because she gagged repeatedly from all the smells there (she never actually throws up). It has become more and more of a problem for her in the past 2 months or so and we need help. Even eating out at restaurants has become too much. We’d love any help you might have to offer.


Response to smell is indeed a difficult issue to address. Here are my suggestions:

  • With complex issues, it is always best to get the advice of a local OT who can do an in-depth evaluation and provide personalized recommendations. If you need help finding one in your area with a strong background in sensory integration, let me know.
  • Fill out the Sensory Symptoms Checklist found on our website under the “Free Printable Forms” heading. See if she is over- or under-responsive in other areas and make sure those needs are being addressed. For example, if she is over-responsive across the board of sensory systems, sometimes using whole-body calming techniques, like the brushing protocol or wearing a weighted vest can also help decrease hypersensitivity to smells. If you have any questions after filling out the checklist, let me know and I’ll be happy to help you.
  • Allow her to chew gum or suck on a mint when going places where you know smell will be an issue.
  • Find an essential oil that she likes. Lavender, pine, and vanilla are frequent favorites. Put a few drops on a “friendship” bracelet (just a few strands of embroidery string braided together will do). She can bring it to her nose to smell it whenever necessary.
  • Teach her to breathe in and out through her mouth, rather than her nose, when overwhelmed by smells.
  • Deep pressure is calming to the entire nervous system. Provide deep pressure in difficult (or smelly!) situations. Push down through her shoulders, give her tight hugs or firm massages. Try a weighted vest or compression clothing (such as Under Armour).
  • Try letting her to keep a tube of Chapstick with her. She can dab a little on the end of her nose.
  • Consult with her doctor to ensure there isn’t a medical issue causing this heightened sensitivity, especially if it continues to interfere with social settings.

Keep me posted on what does and doesn’t work!

Best Wishes,