The Science of Scent, Vol. 1: Phantosmia

Dec 13, 2018 |
Phantosmia is a dysfunction related to our sense of smell

Do you smell weird? Not you personally, of course… what we mean is: has your nose picked up any strange scents lately that simply aren’t there? If so, then you might be experiencing phantosmia. And if this sounds like you, someone you know, or it just sounds plain interesting, read ahead to learn more about this fascinating condition that affects about 10% of the population.


What is it?

Phantosmia is a dysfunction related to our sense of smell, whereby we detect odors that aren’t actually present. In other words, your nose creates what’s known as olfactory hallucinations or phantom smells. (The name is a mashup of the Greek words phantasm, meaning illusion, and osme, meaning smell.) While you may be convinced by what you are smelling, a quick poll from those breathing the same air will confirm that your nose is indeed hallucinating. Odors detected during phantosmia will vary from person to person and can come in through one or both nostrils. These deceptions of the olfactory senses usually occur as “normal” smells, though more often than not they are reported as foul rather than pleasant, with some of the most common aromas being chemical, metallic, or burnt in nature (think cigarette smoke and burning rubber). 

Why does it occur?

Phantosmia can be onset by a variety of factors, ranging from non-worrisome to severe. Though the exact cause is not known, phantosmia is most likely a result of olfactory damage in the nasal cavities. The most common culprits are inflamed sinuses due to a respiratory infection, nasal polyps, or allergies. Olfactory misperceptions are also normal during pregnancy, as increasing changes in a woman’s body can affect sensitivity to smells (and tastes). Other potential causes include dental problems, migraines, head injuries, seizures, exposure to neurotoxins, or anything that triggers smell loss. It can also be a symptom of psychological disorders such as depression or drug withdrawal. Phantosmia will typically go away in time. While initial bouts of phantosmia might only last a few minutes, if the underlying issue goes untreated it can gradually increase to spans of weeks, months, even years.

How is it treated?

If diagnosed with phantosmia, the good news is this condition is usually temporary, and treatment options are typically easy. The most common treatments are nasal saline solutions, antibiotics, or antidepressants if the state is deemed psychological. Doctors can also suggest breathing exercises or physical maneuvers to help stimulate the nose, minimize symptoms, and keep phantosmia from further disrupting your everyday life.


So, what should you do if you are experiencing symptoms of phantosmia? We recommend you consult a physician immediately. Because phantosmia generally occurs after losing one’s sense of smell due to illness, the best approach is to treat the underlying condition and symptoms will often decrease over time. For further information about how our sense of smell works, you can read more here.


Blog posts from Noteworthy should never be considered a substitute for medical advice. If you have any questions or concerns regarding your health, please seek counsel from a medical professional.

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