Top 10 worst smells in the hospital

iStock | MichaelNivelet
iStock | MichaelNivelet

There is nary a seasoned nurse who would dare show up for a shift without a nose saver, like a few Halls cough drops tucked away in the pocket.

Goodness knows there are all too many opportunities for icky smells to drift into a nurse’s workday.

Break out the peppermint oil and get a whiff of our top ten list of worst smells in the hospital!

10. Alcohol swabs

9. Benzoin tincture

8. Tube feeds

7. Cafeteria food

6. TPN

5. Code Brown

4. Bile

3. Vascular wounds

2. C. diff

1. GI bleeds

This list, by Abigail Raymond, RN, is the winner of our “Win Your Top 10 List on a Mug!” Giveaway. You can buy this mug for yourself or your favorite nursing instructor! Submit your own list here to enter!

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86 Responses to Top 10 worst smells in the hospital

  1. mary hawes

    GI bleeds!

  2. mary hawes

    OOPS, I put GI bleeds & didn’t realize it was already posted. How about gangrene!

  3. Joyce

    Don’t forget the smell of burning flesh in the OR! That one takes some getting used to.

    • jbiel517 RN

      Wow! You and I said the same thing, and we have the same first name!!

  4. Ellen Algava

    Don’t forget the smell of an areolar abscess. It’s a two benzoins on the mask smell in the OR.

  5. RickD

    Korean doctor’s coffee-cigarette-kimchee-morning breath? ick

    • nurse1952fun RN

      Or Indian doctor with what ever he eats that smells like rotten teeth. I know it’s something they bury outside in a clay jar.

  6. acey

    Vegetarian doctors from other countries whose culture does not include daily showers and have an appreciation for raw onions on things.

    Jackson-Pratt drainage. It’s like almost-rotten beef mixed with a bad tooth. I’d stick an alcohol swab up each nostril to avoid smelling that again.

    • Michelle Leal

      I’ve never had a JP drain smell bad that I can remember, must have been a nasty infection it was pulling out

  7. Judy

    Pseudomonas. You will never get that smell out of your nose. I totally agree with the GI bleed. I would move that up in the ranks!

  8. Susan

    My vote goes to gangrene …. I worked in the O.R. for two years and I’ve never smelled anything that comes close.

  9. Lisa

    Those infections of unknown origins that have been ‘festering’ for some time, ugh.

  10. alli

    I&D of abcess to labia, I know 200-400mL of nastiness shot out of that thing… I have a cast iron stomach but it was bad, really bad….

  11. Tanya

    How bout the homeless drunk, the smell lingers in the er!!

  12. gg

    yeah, the Bloody stool is probably the worst, a close second is ‘eau de fecal management’ system. nothing covers that up.

  13. Sandria

    I am a home care nurse. The worst wounds I find are infected stage 3-4 pressure ulcers specially coccyx or ankle. Specially if it is psuedomonus. Green thick drainage gets me everytime. Also the worst ever was one of my 1st primary home pt who lived in a trailer whos floor was covered in code brown and piss. And I think the last time he had a bath was when the hospital made him have one. It was awful. I hear now though he is much better but the smell is still in my nose. Also g-tube residuals are nasty too.

  14. Mary Ouellette

    I & D of anything, but esp. a rectal abscess !

  15. karive3

    How about the aroma of a Listerine drinker, especially when they wet themselves… LOVE night shift in the ER

  16. Allison Munn

    I agree pseudomonas, gangrene, and gi bleeds, but don’t forget about the colostomy bag that has come undone and the patient has it from head to toe–having done home health for many years, I remember the patient who had a stage 4 coccyx ulcer with pseudomonas and even thought it was 8 years ago, I can still smell it–dead chickens–ugh!

  17. NurseBelinda

    I work labor and delivery so my contribution is chorioamnititis. Pee-u

  18. Susan RN

    Gangrene gets my vote every time. But emptying a colostomy bag in a tiny bathroom is pretty awful too!

  19. amanda

    Usually anything drained from a pleurovac makes me want to toss my cookies

  20. Linda RN

    burning flesh and hair that one is the most horrible smell and gangrene .. The smell never goes away

  21. Blueorchid

    No mention of neuro breath?

    The stench expelled from a patient’s mouth is directly related to how bad their head injury is…oh yes

  22. penny wiltz

    Gi bleeds aren’t great. Multiple code browns in cdiff rooms…can’t get to a shower soon enough when home. Initial I&D MRSA. Have to laugh.. last night the lactulose worked and partial CB on way to toilet. Toilet plugged by stool lodging sideways and unable to complete its descent. We were laughing and one of us was gagging at same time. Buiness as usual.

  23. Kathy

    Remedy… Activated charcoal in a basin at the bedside! Works wonders!

  24. Jan

    II agree all of the above are bad! The cocky access has my vote as one of the worst smells–gagging, gagging!!

  25. JB

    had a Hospice patient once, and I went to do mouth care. When I moved the mask, I almost vomited on her… Backed up stool in mouth. Worse than c-diff. Good thing she was unconcious. Never did get her mouth completely cleaned.

  26. Sue,RN

    The rectal abscess the patient has “ignored” for about 2 weeks! Not to mention the fluid from a TURP!

  27. Becky C

    Yeast! Especially under breasts that haven’t been washed for a month.

  28. Sherri

    I have to disagree with alcohol swabs — I actually like that smell. Agree with everything else… also want to add dark urine with heavy sedament upon collecion for UAC &S.

  29. rlaran

    Homeless drunks. Especially flatulent ones. You never get rid of that smell.

  30. cjbsrn

    Dead bowel, really dead bowel. Cant wash it our of your hair, brush your teeth enough, shower enough to get rid of this odor. Yuck!!

  31. jbiel517 RN

    Dont forget the smell in OR of the cautery being used on flesh.

  32. I agree with most answers, but colostomies get to me every time and heavy secretions from a trach. Other than that, I’m pretty ok unless it’s a hot, sweaty room with lots of people.

  33. Angel RN

    Pseudomonas. Without a doubt. But one other gag worthy smell is homeless people’s shoes.

    • kdmdiver

      At the last hours of lung cancer… YUCK! That smell for me tops all of the nasty smells I’ve every smelled! Oh it’s death at it’s most pungent. I’d rather have C.DIFF any day!

    • katia

      you are right! 😀

  34. KatrinaTexan LVN

    I have worked in Long Term Care and am bless because when I was 16 years old I ha Ostemyelitis of my Right Tbia. I was alergic to most of the major antibiotics then and had a PCN allergy. I had to take Kanamycin Sulfate injections for Two Months until I could find one that would completly get rid of the infection. Well I lose 90% of my ofactory and 40% of my Auditory nerve loss. That being said I could not smell those ofensive odors luckily. I had no problem with the Code Brown from Colostomy bag compromise,or the decubitus dressing changes.

    • PAJ RN

      Katrina, as a result of a farm accident when I was 14, I had Osteomyelitis from mid Tib/Fib through all but the phlanges. The treatment I received at Childrens in Madison, WI, is why I chose Nursing as my profession. I kept the leg for 20 years, losing it after the infection went active (and resistant) again.
      The smell of the drainage when they first windowed the cast still makes me nauseous when I think of it. The color was so close to the pudding I was eating when the Doctor came to open it, that I still cannot eat butterscotch pudding.
      The other smell that gets me is old saliva, what some people have called the “smell of a Nursing Home”!

  35. lissa_k APN

    had a patient with both c.diff and a major gi bleed. that was horrible.

    also, insulin and spilled iv antibiotics should be added to the list. phew!

  36. nurseleigh RN

    Mucomyst is the worst. Bleh!

  37. CarolynBrisset RN

    Two smells that tear me up are Gas Gangrene, both surgeon and I passed out from the smell and fell off the stools we were sitting on and a dead bowel case. I swear I can smell both for days!

  38. jjjd40 RN

    gas gangrene

  39. NenaMataHari CNA

    Yeah, I have to agree with the c.diff thing. I dealt with that on my very first day on my clinicals. I tried to keep it together, but I ended up running to a toilet to barf. I was SO embarrassed, but the other ladies on the floor said that it’s happened to them before.

    And some of you mention things that smell WORSE than c.diff? Oh man, that has to be REALLY BAD!

    • Michelle Leal

      I don’t think cdff is horrible, it’s very distinct and unpleasant but there’s so many things that top it by a mile

  40. therealcie LPN

    Alcohol swabs don’t bother me and I actually like the smell of benzoin. There are few things worse than the smell of Ruptured Colostomy Bag because for some reason the dietary team thinks its a good idea to feed frail elderly people whose digestive systems are no longer anywhere near up to par chili. I was thinking it would be justifiable homicide if whoever planned that menu were found at the bottom of a laundry chute.

  41. blythekd32 LPN

    cancer. also agree with 1 and 2

  42. NurseDaisy RN

    I agree with all of these, but there’s no mention of rotavirus! Good grief all the alcohol pads in the world can’t get rid of that horrific smell! You got me on colostomies that have leaked…thank God for the mask so the pt can’t see me gagging behind it!

  43. shai_rn

    smell in the delivery room!!!!

    • Pfeliks_RN RN

      Actually most bad smells don’t bother me. I always tell the doc”Why are we bothering to send a spec for C-Diff? I can smell it from here.The smell is unforgettable.”

  44. gulliver98

    End stage cancer of any kind is awful, C diff, pseudomonas, GI bleed, –of course, CB’s are awful. I love the smell of alcohol swabs, benzoin, don’t have any probs with cafeteria food either. Tube feeds are not appetizing, but they smell like baby formula, really!! Ever tasted baby formula, it is not nice!! Maybe I have worked in medicine for too long to be really affected by anything –when you used to clean up vomit and CB’s without gloves, i guess you get used to anything!! And yes, NO GLOVES of any kind -kept your fingernails short, and washed your hands a lot!!

    • bearpawqs

      Totally agree. I like the smell of benzoin. I swear I can smell uring a mile away! lol

  45. desertma

    gangrene, I think it gets in your pores. Thing that made me gag the worst, body odor from pt that had socks removed and skin came with it, as they hadn’t been removed in a very long time. I had to leave the room and stand in the hall

  46. bearpawqs

    Ok, I’m weird. I actually like the smell of benzoin. Smells like the lumber yards in northern MN. GI bleeds are by far the worst. When I worked the Medical ICU we could smell them coming down the hall! So why hasn’t smelly crotches made the list! Man I hated peri care! Death has a smell of its own too. Took hours to get that out of my nose.

  47. lissa_k APN

    Spilled insulin and Invanz are waaayy worse than cafeteria food. And I agree with everyone’s comments about cautery.

  48. zornowk

    After 25years inNICU, I would have to go with bowel necrosis and rotovirus, followed closely by chorioamnitis. Although I have never smelled end stage cancer, I remember my Dad talking about his aunt who died of breast ca in the 1950’s. His mother said she could smell cancer as soon as she walked in the house.

  49. Thereasa RN

    Retained tampons, I & D of infected abcess, Nasty crouch- tricamonas or other STD ‘S. People who do not bathe.

  50. monkeyface619

    Did somebody already say the gas you burp out of a bloated colostomy bag? Or how about colorectal CA growth outside of the rectum mixed with poop.

  51. alesichrnmls

    Rectal abscess

    • carollynnSKJ Caption Contest

      I think the thing that stinks the most is this list. Imagine how a patient would feel knowing that we nurses are gagging over their odors. We all will be patients at one time or another. Will be wondering if we are offending our caregivers?

      • sheriblanch

        First- benzoin shouldn’t be on the list!
        Three of the worst are dead tissue (either necrotic, gangrene or that burning smell mentioned by another reader), vomit and….(keep in mind I’ve been L&D for the past 20 years…)
        The #1 worst smell in my book is curry poop. Come on ladies- have a heart! Don’t eat that stuff if there’s any chance you might be having a baby in the next few weeks. So VILE!!!

        • sheriblanch

          And to CarollynnSKJ- We’ve all been there on both sides of the stethoscope. This is about venting and levity. It’s not necessary to censor our remarks from patients in a nursing forum. Unless we mention your smell AND your name, that is.

  52. Valerie M.

    I just retired and have worked in almost every dept. The smell that stands out in my mind was as a student watching an autopsy of a woman who had died of intestinal gangrene(that’s what it was called back then)..It took me weeks to get the odour out of my nostrils even though we were wearing masks.

  53. alnicho

    Sickly sweet smell of Kayexalate going in and sickly sweet smell of coming out.

  54. katia

    We are a kind of heroes,lol!

  55. katia

    how about melena? so goooooood!

  56. Melvin23

    Diabetic runny bm when their sugar is WAY too high. Heew lordy, sickly sweet and nasty!


    What about a colostomy or vomit from a bowel obstruction?

  58. Ebony Rose


  59. kuggbert

    Melena (well, i know that it falls beneath GI-bleeds), CDI-infection, gangrene, deep wounds with osteitis, deep wounds with strep och staph-infection, fecal matter coming the wrong way (either from vomiting or via nasogastric tube) when a patient has ileus. That’s some of the smells i never get used to…

  60. musicayla

    Mucomyst…I can’t believe this hasn’t made the list yet!

  61. angrandolph

    As we are working in the ER tonight we have come up with our own Top 10 worst hospital smells
    1. cancer that has surfaced 9. cautery of wound edges
    2. GI bleed 10. colostomy bag contents
    3. Gas gangrene
    4. infected fistula
    5. pseudomonas
    6. s/p surgery breath
    7. c diff
    8. urostomy/nephrostomy

  62. hotrod41

    infected colostomy

  63. fulita rn

    Birth, especially when the mom has chorio

  64. Sundevilnurse05

    I didn’t see gangrenous stage IV sacral pressure ulcers loaded with maggots on this list…

  65. pwray


  66. tn_nurse

    OR cautery, fecal vomit and worst ever …prolapsed rectum!!! Ugh

  67. Regina Foy

    I gag at the smell of colostomys

  68. Myeong Dong

    Burning Flesh, code brown, cleaning ostomy bags.

  69. rweiss84

    DMSO as a platelet preservative, makes me nauseous to think of it!

  70. NurseParamedic

    My 10 Worst Smells

    1. Emesis-vomit
    2. Lower GIBs
    3. Burned (large areas of) flesh
    4. Pseudomonas filled wounds
    5. C Diff stool
    6. Over used bleach
    7. Ostomy flatus
    8. Necrotic bowel drainage
    9. Concentrated, infected urine
    10. Bile drainage from NGT

  71. Jantie

    Working in OR …empeyema of the thx cavity with E coli inf.,
    Schigella stool and the worst smell ever….a body found after a few days in a hot car after the person killed himself via monoxide….no go