8 Home Smells That Could Be Signs of Danger

Source: Bottom Line Inc.
Source: Bottom Line Inc.

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.

    Wood burning fireplace converted to gas logs.

    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.

    Dusty burning smell when you turn on your heat for the first time in months. Burning smells understandably trigger home owner anxieties, but this one usually is not a problem—the dust that settled on the unit over the summer is simply burning away. This smell should disappear on its own within a few hours of turning on the heat. Do replace your HVAC system’s filter if you haven’t done so recently because it might be allowing excessive dust to collect on heating components.

    Warning: Turn off your heating system, and call in an HVAC repair pro if you see smoke coming from vents and/or the burning smell occurs at any time other than the heating system’s first few uses of the season.

  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.

    Bathtub drain.

    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 Could Be Two Things

    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. 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.


  1. Have your ever done a program on solar /wind power and coming off the power grid in southern states. How many solar panels to power a average home ?

    Your segments are excellent !! And I like your ties with Chad on channel 5 Mobile Al on weekends Sundays !!! Great info very helpful and products you recommend are real values and very useful !! Thanks !!

  2. Why am i smelling nair when im sitting on a couch watching a movie i smell nair ounce in a while like someone rubbed nair on the couch or something does this mean anything?

    • Hi, Missy,
      Can’t say we’ve ever used Nair, so we’re not sure what it smells like.
      Would you please use other words to describe the odor you’ve noticed?

  3. We are smelling a strong chemical smell that slightly burns the nose in our guest room. Have no idea what it is and have exhausted all our options of figuring it out ourselves. Not a gas smell., not safe to smell any longer but don’t know who to call. My husband was diagnosed with kidney cancer 3 months ago and I don’t want him exposed to any longer trying to figure out what it is. We’ve been smelling it for a few days now but it’s not in any other room.

    • Could be your neighbor using those deodorizers plugged into the wall to conceal the smell when they smoke pot. I also just ordered a commercial ozone generator $200 from Home Depot to clean the air. You can call the gas company to check first and I read that people call the local health dot, state environmental regulators and found old gas in the ground or somebody pours chemicals in the drain and rain flush the chemical down the drain….others suggest to check the smell of the new electric light bulb….I’m searching myself for the smell in the garage but I start with the ionizer first because you need to keep the air

  4. Parents put a lot of effort into making a home safe for children, but there are dangerous smells in a house that can potentially kill.

  5. I have a strong chemical smell, like nail polish or something. I thought maybe freon from the refrigerator but all food is cold. I don’t have any new furniture or carpeting. Gives me headaches

  6. We have a smell coming out of our bathroom that smells like some was smoking weed in our bathroom. No one smokes weed in our house. Would you know what that smell is. my house was built 2004 in the suburb’s of Houston Texas.

    • Hi, Anthony,
      Cannabis has a specific scent, and if you’re smelling it, there’s a chance that it might be the real deal.
      While no one in your home smokes this drug, we’ve seen cases where neighbors were growing it, sending these odors across property lines.
      Good luck with this issue!

  7. Hello,
    I have a smell that smells like mustard yellow that is. I don’t smell it in the bedrooms but then again I keep those doors closed but the rest of the house it does and it’s scaring me. What can this be. I wonder it could be my AC, maybe some pipe or maybe freon leak. I’m just guessing but I don’t feel safe.
    Thank you

    • Hi, Chrisitne! You should definitely remove any uncertainty when it comes to your safety.
      We recommend hiring a professional home inspector to check it out. Good luck! 🙂

  8. Hi,
    The other day, I walked into my MBA and was hit with a overwhelming smell – almost like burning wax and rubber. I checked to make sure my EO diffuser was off (it was) and I unplugged it to be safe, but the smell was still really strong. My house was built in 2001 and, after dealing with a bad outlet connection issue in my basement, I scheduled a full house outlet check. They’ll be back in two weeks. Should I call them back for an emergency fix?

    • We’re fans of staying comfortable and confident in your home, Toni.
      But it sounds like you have serious concerns about this smell, and can’t identify its source from our list.
      In that case, it’s a good idea to call in the pros.
      Better safe than sorry! 🙂

  9. Can you tell me what type of professional I need to call if there is a faint burning wood smell in a house? Would that be the Fire Department or someone else?

  10. Just noticed a strong acetone smell in my apartment. And it didn’t stop until I turned off my ac and I opened was windows, is it my ac are me and my baby safe?

    • Hi, Lisa. Any number of things could cause this odor.
      You don’t want to take chances with your family’s health and well-being, so it’s good that you’re taking this suspicious smell seriously.
      If you’re concerned that the A/C is the source, we recommend hiring a heating, ventilation and air conditioning technician to inspect the system and offer suggestions.
      If the HVAC tech says nothing is wrong with the system, you can rule that out. Then you can hire a home inspector to check for hazards.
      Good luck!

  11. Hello. I live in a small one bedroom apartment. After six months all the sudden it smells like fish. It doesn’t subside. I sprayed Lysol on carpet etc and vacuumed. I leave windows open. I bleached bathroom. Nothing is working. Can you help?

  12. For some reason i randomly smelt bleached and when i went to investigate it turns out that the outlet smelt like bleach. Do you know what that means?

    • If you smell bleach throughout your home, the culprit could be a chlorine gas leak.
      We suggest contacting a home inspector to check out the problem for themselves.
      Good luck! 🙂

  13. I’m in Texas near a city and it has been raining all day. I went outside my apartment to bring something in and I smell gasoline. I went around to the other side of my home and walked onto a balcony and I smell it out the back as well. What could this be? There are parking lots surrounding my apartment on all sides.
    Could this literally be gasoline from a car?

    • Hi, Kelly. Only a certified home inspector can sniff out trouble, whether it’s mold, sewer gases or burning metal that could indicate furnace issues. However, it sounds like this odor isn’t coming from your home, and the origin is external.
      If that’s the case, you won’t be able to do much about it, other than hold your nose or wear a mask.
      Happy home improving! 🙂

    • Hi, Melinda! You can only determine some things in person, so we recommend contacting a certified home inspector to check out (or, should we say, sniff out) this smell and its origin.
      Good luck! 🙂

  14. I have deleveoped a sweet yet funky smell in my basement. I cannot locate any locate any water or damp spts. The odor reminds me of the smell in the basement after we had a glycol spill from a burst wet sprinkler system,. I do not know what type of company I should be contacting to assess the situation.

    • Hi, Elizabeth. We recommend calling a certified home inspector.
      These pros can sniff out all kinds of trouble, including mold, sewer gases, and indications of serious furnace issues.
      Good luck! 🙂

  15. it smells sweet in my room, my room is kinda in the basement and I fear bugs so im hoping its not that. its just a faint smell of something sweet. any ideas on what that is?

    • Hi, Jasmine. We love sweet-smelling rooms, whether the origin is a fragrant candle, incense, or a simple air freshener.
      This doesn’t sound like a problem, so please provide more information. 🙂

  16. My small powder room has a strong smelled of putrid. We had the gasket change under the toilet and it lessens the smell but it’s still there. Now the same strong putrid smell has traveled to a nearby closet. What could this be? We on a slab and all the smells are on the first floor.

    • Hi, Mesha. A rotten smell could be a sign of trouble!
      We suggest calling a plumber so they can identify and eliminate the source.
      Good luck!

  17. Hello,

    I’m experiencing a sudden unusual smell in one corner of a room which is used as an office and game room. There’s the strong smell of new books or newsprint in one corner, and while there’s a lot of books and printed material in here, but there’s no new books or newsprint in the room. I cannot find evidence of any kind of spill. It’s not far from a heating/AC vent, but none of the other rooms smell strangely. It causes a headache if inhaled for a few hours. Any thought what the odor could be?

    • Books and newspapers typically pose no harm to occupants. However, we recommend contacting a home inspector to determine the smell’s origin and whether it’s toxic. Good luck!

  18. I’ve just noticed a nail polish remover smell in my daughters room only but we don’t have any nail polish remover in the house. What could this be?
    (I’ve heard AC issues from reading but it’s winter and my heat is on)

  19. Started noticing a fairly strong ammonia odor right after having a ductless heating and AC unit installed. Company came back and couldn’t find anything wrong. Then hired foundation company to come in a clean out and replace insulation, plug all holes under the house that had much evidence of rats, considerable amount of urine, etc. It has been 9 days since that was completed and we are still smelling this odor. Some burning of eyes, nose, throat and coughing. The odor is not constant, comes and goes. We’ve been running exhaust fans in the house and cracking some windows open. Any suggestions of what we can do next?

    • Hi, Marcia,
      Many factors are involved here (like the new AC installation, rats, urine, etc.)
      Some things you just have to see (and smell) in person to assess and discover solutions.
      We suggest contacting a certified home inspector to check (or, rather, sniff!) things out.
      Home inspectors should be able to smell the scent, look around and find the origin.
      Good luck!


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