Smell Something That Isn’t There? You Aren’t Alone

If you are over 40 and sometimes think you smell something burning or unpleasant but can’t find the source of the odor, you are not alone.  According to a new study, published in the JAMA Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery, nearly 1 in 15 adults over the age of 40 smell “phantom odors” that aren’t really present. 

Our ability to detect smells usually deteriorates with age except in the case of older adults who perceive phantom odors more often.  The condition may be a result of a head injury, dry mouth or chronic health problems and appears to be more prevalent among adults with a lower socioeconomic status.   Very few, only 11 per cent, of people polled who reported phantom odor perception have talked about problems with smell or taste with their doctor.

Researchers used data of 7,400 adults who participated in a national nutrition survey.  Although it is not known what the exact cause behind smelling phantom odors is, the condition can cause changes in appetite and can be dangerous if older adults can’t smell smoke from a fire, a gas leak or if food might be spoiled.  People with phantom odor perception, or olfactory hallucinations, may have difficulty maintaining a healthy weight because food doesn’t taste or smell appealing and patients often report a poorer quality of life as a result of the condition.

According to the Mayo Clinic, phantosmia or olfactory hallucination, can have many causes  including inflamed sinuses, brain tumors, temporal lobe seizures or Parkinston’s disease.  It’s important to consult your doctor if you detect smells that are not really present.