Danny Lipford contributed to this article, which originally appeared on Bottom Line Inc.
You think you smell fish – even though you haven’t cooked anything resembling salmon or swordfish in days. Or maybe it’s the smell of your fireplace – even though you haven’t set fire to a log in weeks. Or the odor resembles ammonia, rotten eggs or something else entirely.
Such household odors can serve as clues that there are hidden dangers in the home – problems that could be pricier to repair and potentially hazardous to your health if not found and fixed fast.
Here’s what homeowners need to know about eight home odors:
1. Fishy Smell That’s Not Fish
Some people refer to this as a urine or burning rubber smell. This could be something electrical in the home overheating and melting its insulating plastic or rubber—which could lead to a fire.The most likely culprit is an appliance, such as a dishwasher, washing machine or an air conditioner. Sniff near each of these while they are running to try to identify the source. When you think you have found the source, either call in a repair professional to investigate… or replace the appliance if it is approaching the end of its useful life.
Warning: If the odor seems to be emanating from a wall switch, outlet or some other part of your home’s electrical wiring, not an appliance, switch off the circuit breaker and call an electrician.
2. Ammonia Smell That’s Not Ammonia
Some people describe this as the smell of death, and they’re right—a mouse or some other small animal likely has died inside your home. One solution is to find and remove the corpse, and that’s often easier said than done—there’s a good chance that it is in a hard-to-reach spot inside your walls, ceiling or floor. Use your nose to find where the smell is strongest, and search everywhere you can in that area. Consider buying and using a small snaking digital inspection camera to peek into walls, behind cabinets and appliances and into other tight spots. Ridgid Hand-Held inspection cameras are a good choice, starting at less than $150. Unfortunately, even with a snaking camera, you won’t be able to see everywhere without drilling holes in walls, and that usually causes more problems than it solves. Of course, you could just wait for the smell to go away, which typically takes a few weeks. Meanwhile, inspect the perimeter of your home for gaps where rodents can enter, and seal these to prevent further invasions. Also, deploy rodent traps—not rodent poison—in the home. If you use poison, additional rodents might die in their hard-to-reach nests inside your home, creating more bad smell.
3. Damp, Musty Smell
This usually signals mold or mildew, which could become a big problem for both your home and your health if not quickly remedied. Use a digital hygrometer to check the relative humidity of each room in the house—you can find these for less than $10 online or at home-improvement stores. If you get readings above 50%, run a dehumidifier. Apply an antimicrobial spray to carpets, curtains and fabric-covered furniture in any room that has high humidity and/or a musty odor.Meanwhile, search these rooms for water leaks. Look behind refrigerators and under sinks for wet spots. Visit the room during the next hard rain to look for visible leaks. Go down to the basement, crawl space or room directly beneath this musty room to look for evidence of water leaks there, too—those could point to leaks that are hard to spot in the room above.
4. Musty/Smoky Odor From a Fireplace That’s Not In Use
First, make sure that the chimney dampers are closed. Chimney smells can be drawn into the house when these are left open.If that’s not the problem, vacuum and then scrub the “firebox”—the area that contains the fire at the base of the chimney. If the smell persists after the firebox has dried following this cleaning, call in a chimney sweep to clean and inspect your chimney. Mention that you suspect water might be getting in. The problem might be as simple as a dislodged chimney cap, or there might be cracks in the masonry.Make sure the chimney sweep checks whether the damper is sealing sufficiently. You can purchase and use an inflatable damper, sometimes called a fireplace draft stopper. These are available for less than $100.
5. Chemical Smell From New Furniture, Carpet or Paint
A fresh coat of paint, a new piece of pressed-board furniture or a new carpet can off-gas volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are not just unpleasant to smell but also unhealthy to breathe. When possible, remove new pressed-wood furniture and carpeting from its packaging and let it air out in your garage for at least an hour, and preferably overnight, before bringing it into your home. If that isn’t feasible, open all the windows in the room and run fans to circulate the air for at least an hour and as long as a full day. That method also works when you are painting interior walls.
6. Sewage Smell
This sometimes is confused with the rotten-egg smell, but it’s less “eggy” and more like the smell of an outhouse or a portable toilet. It probably is coming from a drain. Use your nose to determine which one—it could be the drain of a toilet, sink, tub or shower.One possibility is that there isn’t enough water in this drain’s “P trap.” The P trap is a curved piece of pipe below the drain that should be full of water—the water blocks offensive odors from your sewer line or septic tank from wafting back into the house. If this is the case, running the water for a few seconds (or flushing the toilet) should solve the problem. You also will have to air out the house to get rid of the odor that’s already there. This is especially likely if the toilet, sink, tub or shower has gone unused for months—the water in the P trap might have evaporated.If that does not solve the problem—or if you see that the water is not draining properly—the odor probably is coming from material clogged in the drain line. Put on rubber gloves, and use a flexible 16-to-18-inch drain-cleaning brush to clear out any gunk from the drain. Next, let the hot water run for a few minutes (or flush the toilet) to confirm that it is now draining properly. Then shut off the water and pour one cup of bleach into the drain. Let the bleach sit for 30 to 60 minutes, then run the hot water (or flush the toilet) again. If the odor persists, you may need to rent or purchase a plumber’s auger or snake to dislodge the clog.
7. Rotten-Egg Smell (Gas Leak)
A rotten-egg smell might be a potentially dangerous natural gas leak. Get everyone out of the house—leaving the door and windows open so that some gas can escape—and call your gas company immediately to report the problem and request further instructions. Natural gas itself is odorless, but a sulfur-like rotten-egg smell is added so that leaks will be detected.
8. Rotten-Egg Smell (Sulfur in the Water)
If a faint rotten-egg smell occurs only when your hot water is running, however, it’s probably not a gas leak at all but rather a small amount of odorous sulfur in the water. Sometimes you or a plumber can solve this problem by shutting off the water line leading to the water heater, using a hose to drain the tank, then refilling the tank.
What smells should I worry about in my house? ›
A musty or dusty smell is often a sign of mold or mildew, especially in humid or moisture-prone environments like the basement, laundry room, kitchen, or bathroom. Mold and mildew can create severe respiratory problems and can exacerbate allergies and asthma in sensitive individuals.What could be the smell in my house? ›
A weird smell in a house can come from numerous sources, including appliances, furniture, carpets, fabrics or issues like mold or mildew. Occasionally, odors may be caused by sewer gas, natural gas leaks or animals that have died between walls, in attics or under decks.What household items smell bad? ›
- Front-Loading Washing Machine. 1/14. Musty-smelling mold often grows on this type of washer. ...
- Garbage Disposal. 2/14. Odor-causing bacteria can live in your kitchen sink and drain. ...
- New Furniture. 3/14. ...
- Dirty Carpet. 4/14. ...
- Funky Fridge. 5/14. ...
- Wet Towels. 6/14. ...
- Dead Animal. 7/14. ...
- Stale Sheets. 8/14.
While that "new home smell" may sound like a good thing, unfortunately it is mostly the fumes from so-called volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) floating off new furniture, new paint, and new carpets. Those VOCs are not just unpleasant to smell, but they are also unhealthy.What does black mold smell like? ›
It's often described as musty and earthy, and may even smell like rotting vegetables or plants. You might notice a musty smell, but not be able to see any mold growing. In this case, you should look for areas that might be exposed to water.What smell is most likely to sell your house? ›
- Citrus. Thought to leave a positive impression on those who smell it, citrus is a winner when it comes to selling property. ...
- Pine. Another great scent for selling property, pine may come as a surprise to many... ...
- Jasmine. ...
- Cinnamon. ...
This smell is probably septic gas, unless you have a carton of eggs hiding in your living room. Septic gas has a strong, naturally occurring odor that smells like rotten eggs. The smell is hydrogen sulfide, which comes from sewage and indicates a potential issue with your plumbing.Why do old peoples houses smell? ›
Old things give off the musty odor of age, and the elderly tend to live surrounded by old things, points out Brenda Thompson of Tri-Country Home Nursing. “All those old books and papers, old linens and clothes — they all harbor dust and dampness and give off a musty odor that can pervade the whole house.What animal gives off a musty smell? ›
Take the mustelid family of mammals, which includes minks, weasels, otters and badgers, among others. All mustelids have anal scent glands that can emit foul-smelling secretions, according to Animal Diversity Web(Opens in a new window). Different mustelid species use their secretions for different purposes.What are examples of bad smells? ›
- Baby Poo.
- Sewers on a hot day.
- Bad breath.
- Wet Dog.
- Human Sweat.
- Rotten food.
Can smells in your house make you sick? ›
Some chemicals with strong odors may cause eye, nose, throat or lung irritation. Strong odors may cause some people to feel a burning sensation that leads to coughing, wheezing or other breathing problems. People who smell strong odors may get headaches or feel dizzy or nauseous.What are some strong odors? ›
Examples include ammonia, bleach, gasoline, and paint. These smells usually indicate danger to our brains. Pungent: It is a sharp and bad smell. These scents make a person feel when they smell it. Examples include blue cheese, cigar smoke, fecal matter (e.g., manure), sweat, and sometimes, smells of onion and garlic.What does leaking Freon smell like? ›
Freon usually travels through closed copper coils in an AC unit, but these coils can crack and result in an AC coolant leak. A freon leak will produce a smell between sweet and chloroform.What does a chemical leak smell like? ›
You notice a rotten-egg smell
To help detect the smell of gas, a harmless chemical called mercaptan is added to give leaked gas a distinctive odor. Most people describe the scent like rotten eggs or a hydrogen sulfide odor. Utility companies aren't the only ones to use the mercaptan additive.
The most dangerous cause of a rotten egg smell is a gas leak. When you smell sulfur in the home, go outside and contact a local gas professional. Once a pro rules out a gas leak, troubleshoot other causes like drain pipe issues. Other causes of the rotten egg smell include sulfuric well water and broken drain pipes.What is the most powerful odor eliminator? ›
- Ozium Air Sanitizer Spray. ...
- Lysol Disinfectant Spray. ...
- DampRid Moisture Absorber With Activated Charcoal. ...
- DampRid Fresh Scent Hanging Moisture Absorber, 3-Pack. ...
- Harris Cleaning Vinegar. ...
- Zero Odor Laundry Odor Eliminator.
- Pour 3% concentration hydrogen peroxide into a spray bottle.
- Spray the moldy surface completely to saturate the area with hydrogen peroxide.
Some people are sensitive to molds. For these people, exposure to molds can lead to symptoms such as stuffy nose, wheezing, and red or itchy eyes, or skin. Some people, such as those with allergies to molds or with asthma, may have more intense reactions.What smell attracts home buyers? ›
- Citrus is One of the Best Choices. You can't go wrong with a citrus scent. ...
- Try a Clean Scent to Impress Buyers. ...
- Sell Homes Fast with Vanilla. ...
- Go with Cedar and Pine for a Cozy Scent. ...
- The Best Home Fragrances Keep Things Subtle and Natural.
Once you have a fresh olfactory slate to work with, there are some tried-and-true scents to use for helping to sell a house, including vanilla, citrus (like orange or lemon), and other clean, fresh scents. Cilantro and cucumber are also good, as are aromatic kitchen herbs such as thyme or rosemary.
What do realtors use to make a house smell good? ›
- Freshly Baked Cookies. We've all heard the old advice to bake a batch of cookies before potential home buyers arrive. ...
- Lavender Cleaner. ...
- Sweet Nothing. ...
- Lemon Pledge. ...
- Fresh Paint. ...
- Simply Clean. ...
- Fresh Lemon.
Trimethylaminuria. In this condition, your body can't break down a compound called trimethylamine. This chemical on its own smells like rotten eggs, rotting fish, or garbage. As trimethylamine collects in your body, your sweat, breath, and urine will smell rotten or fishy.What smells like rotten eggs in water? ›
Hydrogen sulfide gas (H2S) can give water a “rotten egg” taste or odor. This gas can occur in wells anywhere and be: Naturally occurring - a result of decay and chemical reactions with soil and rocks. Produced by certain “sulfur bacteria” in the groundwater, well, or plumbing system.Why does my bathroom smell like sewer at night? ›
A dry P-trap is one of the most common causes of sewer smell in your bathroom. The P-trap is a U-shaped pipe located under the sink or drains. It is used to trap water beneath the drain, preventing sewer smells from reaching the bathroom.Why do old people sleep so much? ›
Our natural circadian rhythms change as we age, and we experience a natural slowdown in energy production. This means that sleep becomes more important as the body recovers and restores lost energy.Can you ever get rid of old house smell? ›
Neutralize the air
An open container of baking soda or white vinegar, kept in an unobtrusive place (for example on top of your kitchen cupboards), can help absorb smells and clear the air. Experts also recommend FreshWave or DampRid, two all-natural substances that absorb smells and trap excess moisture in the air.
- Baking soda: Open a container and place it in the area where the smell originated.
- Coffee grounds: Put used coffee grounds in shallow bowls and place around your house. ...
- White vinegar: Bowls of white vinegar can act as an odor neutralizer.
Stink bugs range in size from half an inch to an inch in size, but their most notable characteristic is the one that gives them their name. When stink bugs are frightened, disturbed, or killed by crushing, they emit a pungent odor that some describe as skunk-like. Some say it smells like the foliage of tomato plants.What animal can smell danger? ›
LONDON (Reuters) - Elephants can literally smell danger, according to a study on Thursday that shows the animals can sniff out whether humans are friends or foes.What does a cockroach infestation smell like? ›
What do roaches smell like? People often use words like musty, oily, sooty, or mildewy to describe roach smell. The Oriental roach is said to produce one of the worst smells, but German and American roaches can also give off a foul stench.
What does a freon leak smell like? ›
Freon usually travels through closed copper coils in an AC unit, but these coils can crack and result in an AC coolant leak. A freon leak will produce a smell between sweet and chloroform.What does carbon monoxide smell like? ›
Carbon monoxide gas is colourless and does not smell, so you cannot tell if it is around you.How do I get rid of an unknown smell in my house? ›
Baking soda: Open a container and place it in the area where the smell originated. Coffee grounds: Put used coffee grounds in shallow bowls and place around your house. The coffee grounds will absorb and eliminate smells. White vinegar: Bowls of white vinegar can act as an odor neutralizer.How do you identify where a smell is coming from? ›
If it is outdoors, or if the windows are open, then the smell is stronger near the source. Moving your nose from place to place is a way to determine the gradient of concentration of smelly molecules. Follow the direction of the gradient to locate the source.What does HVAC leak smell like? ›
You may smell an odor of ether, chloroform, or sweetness from the vents or the air conditioner itself. This is the odor of the refrigerant. According to the Department of Energy, refrigerant leaks are harmful to the environment, and exposure to the refrigerant may be harmful to your health.What does AC condensation smell like? ›
In heavily humid climates, your air conditioner may be overrun by the excess condensation and moisture. This standing water in the condensation pan can start to take on a pungent smell that has been likened to vinegar or a musty sour smell.How do you know if your AC is leaking freon? ›
- Low Airflow. When your air conditioning system is low on refrigerant, it won't produce as much cool air as it usually does.
- AC Blowing Warm Air. ...
- Ice Build-Up on the Copper Lines or Evaporator Coil. ...
- High Electric Bills. ...
- Your House Takes Longer to Cool Down.
The most common symptoms of CO poisoning are headache, dizziness, weakness, upset stomach, vomiting, chest pain, and confusion.What smells like rotten eggs in a house? ›
This smell is probably septic gas, unless you have a carton of eggs hiding in your living room. Septic gas has a strong, naturally occurring odor that smells like rotten eggs. The smell is hydrogen sulfide, which comes from sewage and indicates a potential issue with your plumbing.What does sulfur monoxide smell like? ›
What does Sulfur Smell Like? Sulfide and sulfur containing compounds have a characteristic odor reminiscent of burnt matches, skunk, rotted eggs, or natural gas.
What absorbs that smell in the house? ›
Baking soda is one of the best items you can use to absorb bad smells. You can leave an open box or bowl of baking soda in your refrigerator and sprinkle some in the bottom of your trash cans to neutralize foul odors that tend to develop in these places.Do air purifiers get rid of odors? ›
No matter what type of unpleasant smell you currently have in your home, a good air purifier will not only help to reduce or eliminate it, but will make the air you breathe healthier and fresher as well.What does radon smell like? ›
You might not be able to see or smell radon, but it can still harm you—slowly, and in ways that you can't detect. Radon is a colorless, odorless, radioactive gas.Can diseases be detected by smell? ›
For centuries, our sense of smell has been used as a diagnostic tool in the practice of medicine, be it for recognising gas gangrene on the battle field or diabetic ketoacidosis in the emergency room. In recent decades, many scent detection studies have been performed with human, animal and electronic noses.