LivingFantosmia, when your nose plays a trick on you

Fantosmia, when your nose plays a trick on you

Do you smell things that are not there? If so, you are not alone. A study published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery found that the so-called phantom odor perception is much more common than you might think.

It basically describes the experience of smelling something (such as a burning smell) that is not there. This experience is well documented, but very little specific research has been carried out.

Scientists from the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Program of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders recently conducted a study on phantosmia and wondered why some people suffer from it and others do not.

“Smell problems are often overlooked, despite their importance.
They can have a major impact on appetite, food preferences, and the ability to smell danger signs like fire, gas leaks, and spoiled food.” , clarifies Judith A. Cooper, director of the program.


The researchers took data from the
National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey . They used data from more than 7,000 people over the age of 40, taken in 2011-2014.

Within the questionnaire was the question: “Do you sometimes smell an unpleasant smell when there is nothing?” They found that overall, 6.5% of people over the age of 40 experienced olfactory hallucinations, which is equivalent to about 1 in 15 people.

The sense of smell tends to decline with age, but the opposite appears to be the case with this disorder. About 5% of those over 60 experienced the phenomenon, but the figure was much higher in the 40-60 year range.

The study also revealed that phantosmia affected women almost twice as often as men, and this sex difference was more pronounced in the 40-60 age group.

When the scientists looked for possible risk factors, they found that the risk increased for people with poor general health or a lower socioeconomic status.

According to the researchers, this last risk factor could be because people with a lower socioeconomic status could be exposed to higher levels of environmental pollutants and toxins.

Risk factor’s

Those with the sensation of dry mouth had three times more risk than those who did not usually have this sign. Head injuries also increase the risk; 1 in 10 people who experienced a loss of consciousness due to a head injury reported having olfactory hallucinations. However, injuries to the face, nose, or skull without loss of consciousness did not affect risk.

Also, people who smoked cigarettes regularly were more likely to experience these hallucinations. Not so the general consumption of alcohol, since those who drank alcohol more than 3 days a week had a lower risk.

“The causes of phantom odor perception are not understood. The condition could be related to overactive odor-sensing cells in the nasal cavity or perhaps malfunction in the part of the brain that understands odor signals,” says Kathleen Bainbridge, study leader.

“A good first step in understanding any medical condition is a clear description of the phenomenon. From there, other researchers can form ideas about where to look for new causes and, ultimately, how to prevent or treat the disease,” he concludes.

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