5 Household Odors & What More They Might Indicate

The nose knows! But there's even more to know about what your house smells like that scent alone won't tell you...

General household odors are inevitable, and even more so if you have a home full of kids or pets. It could just be that the kitchen trash needs to be taken out, the litter box is overdue for a change-out, or that last week's lasagna is responsible for a funky-smelling fridge. More often than not, whatever is stinking up your home can usually be subdued with a couple of household cleaning products and a strong stomach.

But sometimes, what you think might be a benign stench can actually be a warning sign of a more serious situation. For example, what about those smells that come in waves and be can’t be traced back to a specific source? Is what you're smelling indicative of a more urgent problem, or even dangerous to be inhaling? Both your home and health could be at risk. 

We’ve created a diagnostic checklist to help you maybe match that smell you’re smelling (and more importantly aren’t smelling) to potential problems areas.

*DISCLAIMER: Of course, if at any point an unusual smell in your home seems like it could be putting the health and safety of you and your loved ones at risk, vacate the premises immediately and contact your local fire department. This list is intended to be informative and educational, and should not be used as an instructional resource in the event of an emergency.

1. Carbon Monoxide

A carbon monoxide leak can be life-threatening, which is why we’re addressing it first in foremost.

According to the CDC, at least 430 people in the United States die of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning every year. 

Carbon monoxide is an odorless & invisible killer, which is why having carbon monoxide detectors in your home is non-negotiable. Proper detectors sell for fairly cheap and can be purchased at your local hardware store, online, and are sometimes even distributed by community fire departments.  

Unlike fumes or smoke, there are no obvious signs of a carbon monoxide leak if you don’t have the proper equipment to alert you of such. Learn more about the risk of carbon monoxide and preventative actionable steps here.

 2. Rotten Eggs

Before you search around your home using your nose to pinpoint the source of this ungodly smell, you need to first make sure that you’re not inhaling anything dangerous. Natural gas on its own is actually odorless, just like carbon monoxide. But gas companies combine their gas sources with a chemical, Mercaptan, that has a strong sulfuric stench for the sole purpose of indicating homeowners of a potential leak. 

If you have any gas or propane appliances in or around your home, evacuate the premises and call the local fire department or have a dispatcher from your gas company to come test your home for a leak.

If they give you the all-clear, it’s safe to say that the rotten egg smell in your house is coming from a far less hazardous, but equally noxious source—likely your fridge, garbage disposal, or drainpipes. 

A chunky jug of milk in the back of your fridge could very well be the culprit, but if not, best to check your garbage disposal next. 

Built-up remnants of food in the garbage disposal are a notorious source of that sink stink. If the mystery odor is in fact permeating from your kitchen drain, try putting 1 part ice, 1 part rock salt, and a handful of citrus peels down (lemon works particularly well) into the disposal and running it for several seconds with the water on. The abrasiveness of the salt and ice will work to dislodge any gunk, while the natural oils from the rinds deodorize.

Oh no...not the disposal? Well, next on the list is to check any showers, spigots, or sinks that don’t get frequent use. If any of those pipes haven’t had water running through them in a while, it’s possible that all the water in your plumbing traps has since evaporated, thus allowing sewer gas to infiltrate into your home. Pretty gross. To fix it, all you have to do is refill that trap. Let the water run for a couple of seconds to seal off that gap and keep all the sewer gas where it belongs. 

If the same smell is only noticeable when you run hot water, it may be time to replace the anode rod in your hot water heater. Corrosion of the rod over time can produce hydrogen sulfide, contaminating your hot water reservoir.

3. Musty ‘N Dusty

Does your living room smell like a wet basement? Well, then there’s a good chance you’ve got a mold problem, which is also typically indicative of water damage or moisture build-up in your home. Most types of molds thrive in dark, damp environments, so if you can’t seem to find any visible traces of it around the house by yourself, it may be growing in and behind your walls, ceilings, or air vents.

Prolonged inhalation of mold spores can lead to respiratory agitation and allergy-like symptoms, especially in individuals with pre-existing respiratory conditions, namely asthma. If you have even an inkling that mold could be the problem, have a home inspector come check out the nooks and crannies of your house as soon as possible. 

Need a referral? Our team would be happy to connect you with one of the several local home inspectors that we know and trust. Just reach out!

 4. Wet Dog (Or Maybe Rat)

If your dog just had a bath or maybe is a bit soggy from playing out in the rain, then case closed. But if your dog is dry, or maybe you don’t even have a dog, that lingering wet dog smell could be a sign that you have other critters nearby.

Rats, mice, and squirrels tend to leave behind a similarly musty odor in their tracks. Sometimes a rodent infestation might smell a bit more like ammonia by virtue of their urine, but overall, the aroma is undeniably stale.

Smaller rodents usually blow their cover with more obvious signs once they’ve made their way into your home. Check around your house for mice droppings, signs of gnawing & chewing on furniture and electrical wiring, or torn/eaten food packages and items. Mice are also nocturnal animals so they're most active at night. If you hear any sort of scurrying in the walls after dark, it’s probably a good idea to seek out a professional pest control company. 

 5. Death & Decomp

If you’ve ever driven past a dead animal on the side of the road, though a sad sight, the smell is unforgettably rank. There’s frankly nothing more nauseating than getting a whiff of something dead. So, if it really does "smell like something died in here," chances are... something did. Any odor of decomposition in your home is a tell-tale sign that an animal has perished somewhere within the infrastructure of the house. Unfortunately, this most commonly happens when mice, squirrels, raccoons, or birds make their way in while seeking shelter and then fail to find a way back out. 

The best way to get rid of that dead smell is to properly dispose of the source. If you can’t locate the animal, however, most exterminators will be able to take care of it for you while also inspecting your home for any visible access points and sealing them off to both prevent other critters from the same fate and to prevent any chance of infestation. 

Got any rank household odor horror stories? Leave us a comment below! We'd love to hear from you!


#1 By John Landry at 9/30/2021 9:13 AM

Awesome article! Will definitely keep some of these in my back pocket & also feels like a good place to remind folks to cap their chimnies! Summer of 89 when my wife and I moved into our first house together about a week later we noticed just the worst smell in the world but couldn't figure out where it was coming from. Low and behold some poor critter had been stuck in the smoke shelf. Quite sad but a learning experience for us new homeowners (at the time).

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