The Smell of Death!?

Nurses General Nursing


Specializes in LTC, Dementia/Alzheimer's.

I work in a nursing home and am surrounded by dying patients. Cancer patients, patients with ulcers and necrotic tissue, hospice patients -- They all emit a very similar smell.

After I work, I can smell that same smell of death on myself. Not in my scrubs, but coming from MY BODY! I kinda just blew it off until my boyfriend brought up that he smelled a "rotting animal" on a night when I smelled the death smell particularly strongly on myself.

What could this be? I'm worried that something is wrong with me. Is it possible that I'm inhaling the molecules and am now emitting the smell from my pores?

Specializes in Emergency Nursing.

You sound a little panicked. I would first suggest that you try to calm down because this is a problem you can solve. I remember back when I took Anatomy as a pre-nursing student for the lab portion of the class we dissected a cat and there was this odor of death and preservatives that seemed to cling to my clothing and even to my body, it was sickening. What I found was that when I got home from class I would put my clothing I wore in class (or your scrubs in your case) in a bin to be washed separately from other clothing so the smell wouldn't transfer to other clothing. After I took off the clothing I would immediately take a long hot shower and use deodorant or body spray after and that would be enough to get rid of the smell. I figured it was because the hot water would open up my pores and the smell that seemed to cling to me would wash away which made me feel better. Let me know how it goes... Good luck!

!Chris :specs:

hmmm... i've only had a few patients die on me (which were expected) and i've never noticed a smell about them. odd! i'll have to sniff more closely next time. just kidding. are you guys ever bothered by the deaths of your patients? I know some nurses just accept it as part of their jobs. but a few weeks ago i admitted the sweetest elderly woman in the world. she was a DNR because she was elderly. she was so kind, smiled at me all the time. i had to start an IV on her a couple of times and i apologized for doing it. and she said "don't be! i understand it has to be done and you're doing your job. i'll take it like man!" and then laughed. well, about a week ago, she died. a nurse came into the charting room and said her patient had just stopped breathing. i offered to help her out with the post-death care and when i walked into the room, i saw it was her. as i was helping to clean up the body, i looked at her face and all i could remember was her warmth and friendliness from a week ago... and now, a pale, expressionless face. it made me so sad.

on the contrary, are you guys ever in disbelief when a 98 year-old with chronic diseases comes into the hospital, and the family refuses to make them a DNR? Oh my God, some people just do not want to let go.

Specializes in critical care: trauma/oncology/burns.

Hello Grasshopper:

I must say, yes I agree with you. As you may have noticed in your practice, many diseases and/or organisms have a particular/peculiar smell or odor to them. For instance, C diff has a particularly foul odor, as does pseudomonas. A patient in liver or renal failure will have that particular "smell". How many times have you smelled someone who was a GI bleeder either upper or lower?

When I was working as a civilian in oncology critical care I had a young gentleman with head and neck Ca. He had a horrible odor of staph emanating from his mouth and trach. No matter what he or we did, could not eradicate that smell. And yes, I would go home and swear it was all over me, coming from me.

As cj suggested, perhaps washing your clothes separately would help a wee bit?

Inland18: Yes, there are quite a few patients that I remember who had died. I remember vividly my very "first" expiration. I was a new graduate nurse. An older woman who had horrible decubeti and several debridments. Developed infection and eventually died. But what shook me to my core, that particular day, was that I just had helped turn her, and she was so....with it....I never saw her death coming, so it was a shock to me.


Yes, there is a smell of death. Just like there is 'that look', and 'that breathing'. Unfortunately, I have seen that many times, that goes with living in a particular area with lots of older people, so I have developed my own coping mechanisms.

At the end of the shift, think about the event, somewhere in the open space...and let go of it, as you would do with a baloon. Keep only the 'clinical' stuff that you might want to use next time in a similar situation. But let the person that died go, breathing the fresh air.

Go home and wash at 90 degrees your uniform, wipe your watch, your pen, your badge. have a long hot shower, re-do your hair, use scented hand cream. I use perfume and nice, cotton clothes. I make a coffee or a warm drink, listen to some 'happy' music, call a friend that's a nurse and have a chat if it was a particularly mind blowing experience. I also open all the windows in the house, sometimes I feel I'm still smelling that smell.

I don't talk to my family about it, and my husband knows better than asking me how my day was and has learnt 'the look', if he needs to shut up and leave me alone, he will. I guess I just need the space to clear my head and I'm also worried he or my kid might tell me that I smell funny, so I tend to avoid physical contact.

It's never an easy one. As the time went by, it's not getting easier, but I'm working on my coping mechanism. See what works for you.

I'm sure your personal health is fine. You're taking home the happens anytime you work around things with a "smell". If you work at a resauraunt, you will smell like food- and it's never a good food smell- you stink. Unfortunately, the smell you are taking home is the least desirable... since you've noticed this is a problem, you will have to be even more careful with what you bring into your home. Take your shoes off before you come into the house- leave them on the porch. Strip when you get in- throw your clothes straight into the washer- wash on hot. Jump into the shower, wash your hair really well (hair and fabrics can really absorb scent) and body- brush your teeth and use mouthwash- the scent could even be in your breath! Wash out your nostrils- bad smells can linger in our nose. Put a little dab of vicks under your nose- it will refresh your senses and erase the "scent" memory from your brain.

No, this is not perminant. Don't worry. Our cells are continuasly renuing themselves and they will not forever soak in that smell. The smell is not eminating from YOU, however, being carried home by you. Perfumes and lotions are also good cover ups.

Unfortunately, this is one of the downsides of working around so many terminally ill patients. Just know that the good you do far outweights this inconvenience. :heartbeat

It is my experience that some people are more sensitive to the feeling of death.(Myself included)Tending to the critically ill or terminally ill may make one more intuned to these feelings.Just try to be easier on yourself.This profession is hard enough.

Specializes in Home Health.

try a lemon scented body wash or citrus scented body wash....and wash your work clothes separate from your regular clothing. if you can find a citrus or lemon scented detergent or fabric softener it would help.

Specializes in LTC, Dementia/Alzheimer's.

Thank you all for replying. I WAS panicked! At first I believed it was all in my head, but when my boyfriend brought it up it scared me. I felt in someway that the death was rubbing off on me and I was bringing it home! I know this was completely irrational, but when it comes to protecting my family...

I took a super hot shower, washed twice, deodorant, teeth brushing, mouthwash; everything y'all suggested and it went away.. I do need to start washing my scrubs separately though.. I swore I could smell it in my towel! Maybe I'll wash them twice.

One of my patients did die on a different shift than I work.. She was chronically ill and constantly in pain. I was happy for her in a way, but felt horrible for her roommate. The roommate has had 3 different patients placed in her room and they have all died. After #2, she kept herself from getting too close too quickly, but with the most recent resident roomie she had just let her walls down. The most heartbreaking was when I couldn't tell her. She almost begged, "I just want to know if she's alive or dead!"

Wash out your nostrils- bad smells can linger in our nose.

Google "Neti Pot". It is an ancient practice for nasal cleansing. Also good if you have a cold. Sometimes after working with aerosol paints, I would come in and neti, and you'd be amazed at what is produced from a nasal rinse. (Yukko)...but IT WORKS, and should get any lingering smells out.

Good luck!

Specializes in EMS, ER, GI, PCU/Telemetry.

i've often thought i smelled like death after work. a tip that my mom bestowed upon me was to shower with lemon juice (including your hair--thats where alot of the smell stick), rinse, then shower normally. it kills the death smell, i swear...

another poster said neti pot, which is also an awesome suggestion! i have one! it was worth the $15!

Specializes in Home Health, Long-Term Care.

I don't know about the smell of death, but working as a CNA in a few LTC facilities, I've had to take two showers a day. One before I got to work, and one after I got home. What may be strengthening the 'smell' is the fact that most nursing homes keep the rooms heated to a certain level to avoid the thin-blooded residents from freezing to death. Even on days when it was 80 degrees outside, the residents would still want the heat in their room.

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