Phantom Odors: Do You Really Smell That?

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One in 15 Americans over age 40 experiences phantom odors — foul smells without a source – say researchers at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Results of their study, published in JAMA Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery, could help provide clues about sense-of-smell disorders, which can lower quality of life and affect appetite and food preferences, as well as the ability to smell dangers like smoke, natural gas leaks, and spoiled foods.

The researchers analyzed information from the 2011-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, reviewing the responses of 7,417 respondents over 40 to this question: "Do you sometimes smell an unpleasant, bad, or burning odor when nothing is there?"

Phantom odor perception is not well understood. According to the NIH researchers, the disorder could be related to overactive odor-sensing cells in the nasal cavity or a malfunction in the area of the brain that interprets odor signals. Women are more likely to perceive phantom odors, as are people who take certain medications, have had a head injury, experience dry mouth, have poor overall health, and are in a low socio-economic group. The experience of the latter group may be due to increased exposure to pollution or environmental toxins, the researchers speculate.

Sourced from: JAMA Otolaryngology — Head & Neck Surgery