Smelling things that aren't there could be a sign of disease

Aug 22, 2018
10:58 P.M.

Smelling things - particularly foul things - that aren't actually there could be a sign of a number of different health problems, and should not be ignored.


A recent study has shown that approximately one in 15 people are affected by "phantom odors," with some interesting results as to the statistics of the demographics that are most affected.

The study, which surveyed over 7,000 people over a three-year period, found that twice as many women were affected than men, and most people were under the age of 60. It also found that people with a lower socio-economic standing were more likely to be affected.

Other factors that played a part in the presence of phantom odors for some people included head injury, dry mouth, and poor overall health among others.


"Chronic nasal inflammation, deviated nasal septum, nasal polyps, and even having a bad cold can cause issues with our sense of smell," Dr. Benjamin S. Bleier, associate professor of otolaryngology and director of endoscopic skull base surgery at Harvard Medical School, added.

Dr. Kathleen Bainbridge of the epidemiology and biostatistics program at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, part of the National Institutes of Health, weighed in on how phantom smells occur.

“The condition could be related to overactive odor sensing cells in the nasal cavity or perhaps a malfunction in the part of the brain that understands odor signals,” she said. "A good first step in understanding any medical condition is a clear description of the phenomenon. From there, other researchers may form ideas about where to look further for possible causes and ultimately for ways to prevent or treat the condition."


If left untreated, phantom odors can affect quality of life.

"Problems with the sense of smell are often overlooked, despite their importance. They can have a big impact on appetite, food preferences and the ability to smell danger signals such as fire, gas leaks and spoiled food," Dr. Judith A. Cooper, acting director the NIDCD, explained.

These odors could also point to a more serious underlying health issue, especially severe neurological conditions.

The study found that only about 11 percent of the people surveyed who experienced phantom odors had ever actually discussed them with a medical professional.

People who are suffering from serious neurological conditions will want to have them diagnosed and treated sooner rather than later, making phantom smells a good place to see a doctor.

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