Can You Get Sick From Smelling Rotten Food?

You have made the most of the last harvest from your veggie patch. You spent hours chopping and canning your bounty. All your provisions were stored in the optimal conditions as best you knew how, but one day you noticed a smell that should not be there. It can happen to anyone. Can smelling the rotten food while you sort through everything make you sick? Do you need to discard everything? 

Smelling rotten food cannot make you sick. Scent particles are smaller than sickness-causing microbes. The sense of smell is a neural interpretation of airborne particles that bind to receptors in the mucus lining of your nose. Substances that cause the scent can harm the body.

In order to understand the situation better, a little science can help you understand what is happening and how to assess the risk involved. Now don’t worry. You don’t need to be a scientist to get to the bottom of this. I have had a few smelly scares that led me to explore the facts. Be warned, though, it is not a straightforward answer. Here is what I found.

Can The Smell Of Rotten Food Make You Sick?

Your body processes smell when gaseous molecules travel through your nose and attach to receptor cells located in the olfactory epithelium found in the mucous lining of your nose. Here the gaseous molecules bind to the olfactory receptor cells. (Like a network of millions of click blocks.)

This process produces electrical signals. The electrical signals are then sent via specialized nerve cells called glomeruli to other nerve cells called mitral cells in the area of your brain that interprets the smell.

All this happens without us thinking about it. Then the magic starts to happen.

Your brain processes the smells and forms associations. These can be good or bad based on your previous associations with a smell. The association can even be instinctive of a scent you have never smelled.

A smell can cause you to feel nauseous or make your stomach turn to keep you from eating spoiled food. It may also draw an association with a good memory of a good or familiar smell.

Gas molecules are much smaller than bacteria or other disease-bearing organisms that can make one sick. So, the smell on its’ own cannot make you sick. The smell is simply the way our brains interpret a scent.           

Smelling rotten food can warn you not to eat certain foods. A smell can warn you about the presence of contaminants that can cause you to become ill or warn you of the existence of microbes such as molds, yeasts, or bacteria. Sadly, it is not foolproof though.

What Causes Food To Smell Bad?

The smell of rotting food is most often caused in two different ways.

  • When microbes (like molds, yeasts, bacteria) start to break down food, gasses build up in the actual decaying matter, or
  • The gas builds up and is released by the higher volume of microbes themselves.

The gasses produced when food goes rotten can have numerous effects on your body. You can present with a wide variety of symptoms depending on the amount and type of gas you inhale.

With a gas such as hydrogen sulfide, which smells like rotten eggs, the effects can range from your nose and throat feeling irritated, eyes watering, headaches, and losing your appetite to much more severe symptoms.

Fortunately, the foul smell warns us of the presence of hydrogen sulfide and is enough to ensure that we limit our exposure to this gas as far as it is possible. In the case of hydrogen sulfide and other strong-smelling gasses, we have the smell as a warning that all is not well.

However, the breakdown of food does not always smell bad. One such example is a bacterium called pseudomonas fragi which usually causes dairy products to spoil. It produces a rather pleasant smell, almost like strawberries.

Decay-causing microbes can produce a wide variety of odors, but more dangerously, some produce no scent at all.

Can You Always Smell When Food Is Contaminated?

A strong smell can be a way to tell if food has started breaking down due to microbes like yeasts or bacteria. It is not foolproof as a way of telling you that food could make you ill, though.

Many microbes that cause food-borne sickness and gastric distress have no associated smell or taste that humans can detect. Microbes in this category include bacteria such as clostridium botulinum, salmonella, and the staphylococcus family of bacteria.

One clue that canned or preserved food is infected with an odorless microbe could be a bulging lid. Discarding containers of food that are swollen and distorted will undoubtedly reduce your risk of infection by this sneaky group of microbes.

Is All Decaying Food Rotten?

Many food decaying microbes are our friends despite the noxious smell they cause. Yeasts and bacteria can work together to decay food in a controlled process we call fermentation. They turn otherwise inedible or indigestible foods into meals that boost our bodies with gut-friendly microbes.

For eons, the human race has harnessed the use of such microbes to produce some of our most favored food and beverages.

They turn milk into many varieties of:

  • Yogurt
  • kefir
  • cheese

Grains are transformed into:

  • beer or
  • whiskey

Various fruits are transformed into:

  • wine
  • brandy
  • ciders

We use our tiny helpers to help preserve meats into items like:

  • salami
  • pepperoni and
  • chorizo

They also help us with a multitude of plant-based food items like:

  • natto
  • miso
  • soy sauce
  • sauerkraut

Is A Rotten Smell The Best Way To Tell If Food Is Bad?

A rotten smell also does not always indicate that food is spoiled! There are foods in different cultures that smell so bad that there are restrictions on consuming them.

They make your stomach turn, and if it were only up to your nose as a guide, they would land up in the compost heap. Foods like Tempeh, Surströmming, and Harzer cheese fall in this category.

Can Smell Be A Survival Tool?

In a survival situation, the smell of decaying food can warn you to avoid eating a type of food. If a scent did not warn you before ingesting something, your body has a defence system that causes it to eliminate substances that could harm it.

Elimination can happen as vomiting, diarrhea, or perspiration. It is most times accompanied by weakness and fever and leads to dehydration. Dehydration is a huge cost to pay when resources are scarce. It may not be foolproof, but your sense of smell is a valuable tool to assist you when foraging.

Just as a smell can warn you about the presence of spoilage microbes, it can also help you correctly identify food items. It is crucial to learn to distinguish edible plants from toxic ones. Smell is one of the tools you have at your disposal for this process.

Scent can also alert you to the presence of plants or animals in your surroundings. The smell of crushed leaves can confirm or disprove the plant identity and avoid nasty consequences. It can help you find supper or help you avoid sickness or worse.

Many animals release an odor. It may be as a warning, or it could be a consequence of their surroundings, but it is still a clue to their presence which can help you avoid an unintended meeting.


You cannot get sick from smelling rotten food; however, your sense of smell can warn you about the presence of gasses that could harm you. Smell warns us to avoid these items.

 Even though smell can alert you to avoid a particular food item due to decay, it is inaccurate as a tool to determine if food is good or bad.

Your sense of smell on its own is not always an accurate way of determining food safety, but it is a valuable tool in your survival arsenal.


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