More than 6 percent of Americans over age 40 smell "phantom odors"—the perception of odors when none exist—according to research from the NIH published in JAMA Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery in August 2018. The researchers reviewed the responses of 7,417 study participants (average age 58) who were asked whether they sometimes smell an unpleasant, bad, or burning odor when nothing is there.
Phantom odor perception, or phantosmia, is not well understood. According to the NIH researchers, one explanation for the disorder is that it could be related to malfunctioning odor-sensing cells in the nasal cavity or overactive cells in the area of the brain that interprets odor signals. Other research has pointed to an association with cigarette smoking and certain medical conditions.
Women are more likely to perceive phantom odors, as are people who have had a head injury, experience dry mouth, have poor overall health, and are in a low socioeconomic group. Phantosmia has also been associated with later development of some neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Although this study didn’t take them into account, certain medications (including antihypertensives, antidepressants, antibiotics, and chemotherapy drugs) have been implicated in other research as being associated with phantom odors.
What you should do: Phantosmia can lower quality of life and affect appetite and food preferences. If you suspect you’re smelling odors that aren’t there, tell your doctor at your next visit. He or she can evaluate your sense of smell and manage any treatable underlying causes.
This article first appeared in the November 2018 issue of UC Berkeley Health After 50.
Also see Making Sense of Smell.