As a nurse or nursing student, you’ll deal with your fair share of unpleasant smells. It’s just a part of the job. I’ve found that some nurses are extremely good at tolerating strong smells, whereas others have a very sensitive nose, which can activate their gag reflex.
Many aspiring nursing students worry about this aspect of the job, and have asked me to offer some tips on dealing with this issue.
Let’s get to it…
Bad Smells in Nursing
I can remember being paired with another student while I was in nursing school. We were working with a patient who was on a tube feeding. For those of you who have worked with patients on a tube feeding, you’ve probably noticed that their bowel movements tend to be liquid, and due to the vitamin supplements they are receiving, they tend to have a very strong odor.
As we turned the patient, the student caught a whiff of the very strong odor, and it immediately activated her gag reflex. She gagged for a few moments uncontrollably, and she was clearly embarrassed by it.
If you are sensitive to strong odors (or have a sensitive gag reflex), then you’ll want to take extra precautions. Below are some tips that I hope can help you cope with the strong smells in nursing.
Tip #1: Prepare Yourself Mentally
As a nurse, you can learn to identify certain illnesses or situations that will produce strong odors. You can then prepare mentally for the situation so that you aren’t caught off guard.
For example, patients may produce strong odors if they have GI bleeds, ostomy bags, or infections such as C. diff. If you see that a patient’s chart indicates that he or she is suffering from one of those issues, you can know that you’ll probably be facing those strong odors.
Therefore, you can learn to identify situations or illnesses that cause you problems, and prepare yourself for them.
Tip #2: Eliminate Smells When Possible
If you can eliminate any odors by performing hygiene for your patients, do it. For example, if your patient has strong body odor, consider giving him or her a bath. If your patient has a bedside toilet that is full, consider cleaning it or replacing it so that you won’t have to keep smelling the same strong odor every time you enter the room.
Keep in mind that if you can smell a strong odor, your patient can probably smell it, too. This is especially true if your patient is alert and oriented. Your patient may be embarrassed by strong odors, especially since he or she may have family, doctors, and other healthcare professionals entering the room all day.
Therefore, taking care of smells will not only help your sensitive nose and gag reflex, but also it will be a way for you to provide better patient care and increase patient satisfaction.
Tip #3: Use Scented Products or a Mask to Minimize the Odor
For the situations that you can’t control, you’ll have to think of creative ways to mask those strong smells. One thing you can do is use a product like vapor rub, scented oils, or scented lip balm. Rub the product at the base of your nose or on your upper lip before you come near the strong odors.
In addition, many nurses will use a mask to filter much of the smell. If you have a very sensitive gag reflex, you might even want to double up and use vapor rub or scented lip balm, along with a mask.
However, I would recommend doing those things discretely, before entering the patient’s room. Patients may become embarrassed or uncomfortable if they sense that you notice the odor.
Tip #4: Learn to Control Your Breathing or Take a Quick Break
In those situations where you can’t prepare mentally or minimize the odor by using a mask or product, you might have to stabilize the patient and say, “I’ll be right back.” Then, you can exit the room, get a quick breath of fresh air, and apply your mask or vapor rub.
Breathing through your mouth may help lessen the smell, but it doesn’t work for all nurses.
In addition, many hospitals will stock allergy-free air fresheners in the supply rooms. You can squirt the air freshener before or after you serve the patient, or you can ask the patient if he or she would like to keep it in the room to freshen-up for visitors.
Again, keep in mind that patients may be sensitive about unpleasant smells, so choose your words wisely. You might say something like this: “We have some new air fresheners that smell so nice. I’ve given one to all of my patients. Would you like me to bring you one?”
Conclusion: Sometimes, Nursing Stinks (Literally)
In nursing, dealing with unpleasant odors is just a part of the job. We all have to deal with them at one point or another, and many of us have to deal with them daily. However, even if you struggle with strong odors, you can find ways to overcome your sensitivity.
By preparing yourself mentally, staying on top of hygiene, using scented products and air fresheners, you can make your patients feel more comfortable. You can also save your nose and keep your gag reflex in check.
I hope that helps!