Does Your Home Smell Funny? 12 Odors That Could Mean Big Trouble
Here's how to tell whether a strange odor inside your home is hazardous to your health, or an easy fix.
A home can harbor all sorts of lingering and unpleasant aromas: think cat urine, stale cigar smoke, last Sunday’s fried fish, and stench from the bathroom. The range and nastiness of these smells may explain why more than 249 million Americans reported using air freshener sprays and room deodorizers in 2020, according to U.S. Census data and Simmons National Consumer Survey. While some household odors are merely objectionable, others can be indications of hazardous conditions in your home. Before deciding how to get rid of odors in a house, however, we first have to figure out what’s causing the odor. If you’ve ever described your home’s smell as “fishy” or “pickly,” for example, you might have a problem on your hands.
About half of the homes in the United States use natural gas for heating, hot water, cooking, or drying clothes, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. An undiscovered gas leak could cause a fire or explosion. However, under normal circumstances natural gas is colorless and odorless, which could make gas leaks practically undetectable.
As a safety measure, gas companies add a foul-smelling odorant to natural gas to produce a characteristic “rotten egg” smell. If there’s a rotten egg smell in your house, vacate the premises immediately—do not use the landline or turn on or off any lights or appliances—and call the gas company from a neighbor’s house or a mobile phone that’s a safe distance from your home.
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A Fishy Smell
If something smells fishy in your home, it might not be the lingering odor from last night’s tilapia. In fact, you may want to call an electrician ASAP. That fishy smell is typically a sign that an electrical component is overheating or burning. The smell can come from loose or frayed wires or cords, overloaded circuits, faulty outlets, incorrectly sized breakers or fuses, or overheated electrical shielding or insulation. If they are not addressed quickly and properly, these problems could result in a house fire.
Sewage or “Bathroom” Odor
Don’t blame the bean dip! If you have a sewer smells in the bathroom, you may want to call the plumber. That smell may mean that your plumbing system or vent pipe is clogged, or that you have a broken sewer pipe. The smell might also be caused by a dried-up P-trap, especially if the stench is coming from a drain that has not been used in a while. (If the water in the trap has evaporated, sewer gasses can escape.)
Run water through all drains at least once a month to prevent a sewage smell in the house. The water heater is yet another common cause of a sewage or sulfur smell: If the smell intensifies when you run the hot water, you may need to replace the anode rod in the heater.
Even people without feline friends may smell cat urine, especially after it rains, and wonder how to get rid of cat pee smell that’s plaguing them. That distinctive odor can be an indication of a mold problem. Certain types of mold smell like cat urine, including dangerous toxic black mold, which should be remediated by a professional.
Another source of cat urine odor is ornamental boxwood, a common landscaping shrub. Finally, if your home’s previous owners had cats, any moisture that comes into contact with wood floors and walls will release the ghostly odors of cats long past.
RELATED: Solved! What Does Mold Smell Like?
Wet Dog Smell
Nothing smells like a dirty, wet dog, but squirrels, raccoons, and rats do give off a similar odor. If you don’t own a pooch but keep getting a whiff of a wet dog, you may have rodents in residence. Many wild animals may bite or have rabies, and through their infected feces they can transmit worms and diseases to humans or pets. Keep everyone safe by calling in a professional pest-control service to remove the interlopers.
RELATED: 10 Telltale Signs You May Have Mice
Rotting food has a distinctive sickly-sweet smell that tells our animal brains to stay far, far away. If you notice a rotten smell in your home, it could be that an old potato has fallen into the back of a cabinet. Otherwise, it could be that a mouse, rat, or other animal may have perished inside your home’s walls, ductwork, attic, crawl space, or chimney. Have a professional come and check your ductwork and plumbing as soon as possible to remove the deceased intruder.
Gym or “Locker Room” Smell
That all-too-familiar “dirty sock smell” may not be coming from your teenager’s gym bag. Instead, it could be caused by a buildup of bacteria on your heating system coils. Bacterial growth can occur at any time of year but is especially prevalent in the spring and fall, when the system is constantly cycling between heat and cold. Condensation on the coils creates the perfect environment for bacterial growth, which produces a distinctive odor. The best way to rid your home of the stench is to clean the evaporator coils with a non-acid coil cleaner, or call in a qualified HVAC professional to clean the coils and air ducts.
Musty and Dusty
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.
It’s important to eliminate mold as quickly as possible. Small areas of mold and mildew can be cleaned with a mixture of bleach and water; more serious mold and mildew problems may require the services of a professional. To prevent mold and mildew from coming back, check for leaky fixtures and broken or cracked pipes, and consider installing exhaust fans or otherwise improving ventilation in the affected rooms.
“New Paint” Smell
Some people just love the smell of freshly painted walls, but for others, fresh paint can cause throat irritation, sneezing, coughing, headaches and dizziness. The culprit: volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are common components of many paints and release odors as the paint dries. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that consumers use low- or no-VOC paints for home interiors.
Always open windows and doors for ventilation while painting. After painting, deodorize naturally by placing bowls of crushed charcoal, baking soda, or fresh lemons in water around the perimeter of the painted room; leave overnight or until the paint smell dissipates.
Burning, Smoky Odors
Unless you have a fireplace, the smell of smoke or something burning is definitely dangerous. Even if you don’t see signs of fire, you could have something smoldering in the basement or inside the walls. The smell of ozone, common during a lightning storm, could mean overheated electrical wires or appliances, overloaded circuits, frayed or loose wiring, or incorrectly sized breakers or fuses.
Check your electrical outlets for sparks or burn marks; call a licensed electrician if the problem persists. An “oily” burning smell could mean that your furnace is malfunctioning, and failing to ignite all of the oil in the burner. Call a licensed professional as soon as possible to have the unit checked and serviced. Oil spills from fuel deliveries can also give off an oily burning smell. For more details, review our tips on DIY furnace cleaning and maintenance.
If you smell a strong pickle-like odor in your home, it may be the chemical formaldehyde. Although formaldehyde is classified as a dangerous carcinogen and a VOC, it is widely used in a range of manufacturing processes and products including adhesives, resins, preservatives, disinfectants and fixatives.
Many manufactured homes use building products containing formaldehyde, including walls and flooring. Carpeting, upholstery, paneling, and pressed wood furniture all can be sources of formaldehyde, which can cause allergic reactions and respiratory problems for sensitive individuals.
Formaldehyde turns into a gas at room temperature and the “off-gassing” produces this strong odor. In manufactured homes and building materials, it can take as long as 2 years for this off-gassing to diminish. For odor removal, open doors and windows and run ceiling fans or stationary fans as often as you can. You also can try covering carpets or upholstery with baking soda, allowing it to sit overnight and then vacuuming thoroughly.
A combination of damp, earthy, swampy, and musty smells usually means you have rotting wood somewhere in your home, and it is important to find and fix the problem before it undermines the structural integrity of the affected area.
The most common sites for wood rot are:
- Flooring, especially in kitchens and bathrooms, can experience moisture build-up, poor ventilation, and plumbing leaks.
- Window sills or window frames can have condensation build up on the glass and seep into the surrounding wood.
- Door sills or frames can weaken with rain, snow and ice exposure over time.
Damaged or leaking gutters also can allow water to seep into your home and damage the framing, joists, walls, foundation and more.