Phantosmia: The Smells in Your Head
People with phantosmia have an illusory sense of smell; they smell things that simply are not there. Read more about this uncommon smell disorder.
Earlier, I wrote about anosmia or losing your sense of smell. For as long as I can remember, I have rarely been able to smell fragrances and odors.
Some people are sensitive to certain smells, and their sensitivity makes them physically ill. Others have an illusory sense of smell; they smell things that simply are not there.
The medical term for this condition is phantosmia, from the Greek words "phantasm" (illusion) and "osme" (smell). People with phantosmia smell things that are not derived from physical stimuli. In other words, the odors are "in the mind."
Phantosmia is a real problem, though the smells are not real. Olfactory hallucinations can vary from person to person. Sometimes phantom smells are pleasant scents; more often, they are foul smelling odors that are hard to live with.
Those with this unusual condition say the smells can occur in one nostril or both. Unfortunately, other (real) fragrances usually cannot mask the phantom odors.
What Causes Phantosmia?
According to Dr. Jerry Swanson, a Mayo Clinic neurologist, phantosmia sometimes occurs after a head injury, brain tumor or stroke. Epileptic seizures may also cause the condition.
Phantosmia is often related to upper respiratory infections, sinusitis and migraine headaches. In some cases, it is linked to neurological disorders such as depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease.
While phantosmia may indicate an underlying medical condition, the problem is not always related to serious illness. It generally arises from some loss in the ability to smell.
Dr. Donald Leopold practices otolaryngology in Omaha, Nebraska. He says the brain has "a propensity to make smell." When olfactory ability is impaired, the brain may overcompensate by creating odors that once existed and were suppressed.
Fortunately, some cases of phantosmia can be treated. If you experience any type of smell distortion, see your doctor or an ear, nose and throat specialist.
Nasal saline drops, antidepressants, sedatives and anti-seizure medicines are common treatments for smell disorders.
For severe olfactory hallucinations, especially foul smells that are hard to live with, surgery may be an option. A surgeon can severe certain olfactory connections to resolve the problem.
Interestingly, phantosmia sometimes disappears on its own. Most people just learn to live with the disorder. Have you?
- Andrews, Jane G. (August 10, 2009). "A Pungent Life: The Smells in My Head." The New York Times. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
- Swanson, Jerry W. (March 27, 2010). "Phantosmia: What Causes Olfactory Hallucinations (Phantosmia)?" Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
- Weil, Andrew. (February 10, 2012). "Phantosmia: Smelling Smoke all the Time?" Andrew Weil, M.D. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
- Wikipedia contributors. (February 9, 2012). "Phantosmia." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved February 22, 2012.
More in this Series
Anosmia is a lack or loss of the sense of smell. To learn more about this smell disorder, from causes and treatments to personal experiences, read on.