Serious diseases can make you smell cigarette smoke even though nobody is smoking.
Smelling cigarette smoke or something burning can be a sign of a major illness.
However, phantom smelling (be it cigarette smoke, burning rubber or something foul) is more common than you would think — and is usually nothing to be alarmed about.
Nevertheless, it is important that you get checked out by a physician who understands smell.
You should keep in mind that benign conditions, not just serious disease, can make you smell cigarette smoke or burning rubber, says Jordan S. Josephson, MD, FACS, ear, nose and throat specialist; director of the New York Nasal and Sinus Center, and author of “Sinus Relief Now.”
Smelling cigarette smoke or something burning, in the absence of burning rubber or someone puffing cigarettes, is called phantosmia.
This is smelling something foul when nothing is around to actually be causing the odor.
So what are the serious diseases that can cause phantosmia?
Dr. Josephson says, “A tumor of the brain or the olfactory nerve can also cause phantom smells, decreased or absent sense of smell (hyposmia), or bad sense of smell (known as parosmia).”
Brain tumors in these locations are not the only alarming conditions that can lead to smelling cigarette smoke or burning rubber in the absence of these compounds.
Dr. Josephson explains, “We do know that this sensation can be related to neurologic problems such as a stroke, seizure disorder or epilepsy.
“The patient may not even be aware that they are having a seizure, epilepsy or a stroke because this (smelling cigarette smoke) may be the only symptom.
“If a brain tumor is the cause, it could be an aesthesioneuroblastoma.
“A brain tumor that would cause you to smell cigarette smoke or burning material would usually be located in the temporal lobe of the brain.”
Dr. Josephson adds, “If you suffer from recurrent or increasing episodes of parosmia [or phantosmia], then it is important for you to have this looked into by a board certified ENT doctor and/or a neurologist.”
The exam should include a CT (CAT) scan and a smell test.
If you occasionally smell rubber burning or cigarette smoke for no apparent reason, don’t panic and don’t assume you have a serious disease.
This problem is common and is often the result of many possible benign or non-serious causes including sinus infections which can be recurrent or recalcitrant.
The time to see a doctor is if the phantosmia or parosmia is persistent or frequent, and especially if it worsens.
Make sure you see a board certified ear, nose and throat doctor, also known as an otolaryngologist, who understands the nose and sinus.
Dr. Josephson has taught hundreds of physicians the technique of functional endoscopic sinus and nasal surgery, and was an instructor on the faculty at the Johns Hopkins Medical Center.
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.