Let’s talk about that hospital smell

There are many things that stand out about hospitals but the one that probably stands out more than any other is the small that comes with the building. Hospitals all smell the same and that smell is like no other smell encountered anywhere in the world. But what is it? Where does it come from and what is the thinking behind it? These might seem like slightly odd questions, but smell evokes memories and associations and almost everyone has had the experience of a hospital at some point in their life. So, without further ado, here is a quick look at some of the factors that contribute to that hospital smell.


Doctors and surgeons use all manner of instruments when performing their work. Be it scalpels or clamps or forceps there are an almighty array of different tools required. Even bedpans! These are not the type of things that can be used and reused with just a scrub under the tab and a dash of dishwashing liquid. They need to be properly cleansed and sterilised and to this end hospitals are packed with devices for ensuring the instruments are pristine all the time. Melag Sterilisers and autoclaves abound, lending their curious odours to the halls and wards.


There is nothing quite like the smell of laundry and fresh linen and at hospitals they go through a ton of this. It goes without saying that all sheets are changed between patients. The same applies to surgical gowns and other items. Given that nobody wants to stay longer than necessary in a hospital it goes without saying that turnover of ‘guests’ is high and as such that the smell of fresh laundry is always contributing to that smell.


It might not be the nicest smell and it can easily make your eyes water, but bleach is great at killing germs. And hospitals are always doing their best to eliminate germs. It is almost a constant process, the sweeping and mopping of floors – especially in high traffic or bloody areas like accident and emergency. Bleach has a very overpowering smell and an odour that is often impossible to escape. It is very central to the overall hospital scent.


Controversial perhaps, but many people will tell you that death has a smell. Maybe it is superstition but maybe there is something in it. Perhaps it is not death but there is an intangible element to the smell of a hospital. Maybe it is death or perhaps it is just fear. It goes without saying that hospitals are places where people die and where others arrive full of terror and fright. So, if these things did have an odour it would naturally be found here.


Strange but true! Hospitals are reportedly one the places where fresh bunches of flowers are most frequently to be found. Cards and flowers offering condolences, get-well-soon and congratulations are all delivered to hospitals daily – in vast numbers. Ask any florist delivery driver and he will tell you that he stops at a hospital at least five times a day. And those flowers make their mark, contributing a freshness to that unique hospital smell.