Do you smell the stink of dirty feet but there’s no dirty feet or socks around?

Why does it seem that everything smells like dirty socks or feet?

Let’s assume that external causes of smelling stinky feet have been eliminated:

• Nobody with foot odor has been in your house.

• There are no old grimy sneakers sitting around (these can really stink up a room).

• Your own feet, and those of family members, are clean.

• Nothing else can account for the odor such as a pet accident or residual BO from a visitor.

So it looks as though you’re smelling something that is not actually there.

This is called phantosmia and has a full spectrum of possible causes, says Gene Liu, MD, MMM, and Chief, Division of Otolaryngology, Cedars-Sinai Medical Group.

Dr. Liu names the following as possible causes of phantom odors including dirty feet or socks:

• Seizure activity in the region of the brain that interprets odor
• Irritation of the olfactory nerve (can be caused by medications or trauma)
• Atypical migraine
• Vitamin deficiency
• Parkinson’s disease
• Brain tumor
• Sinus tumor phantom

“If foul odors, like dirty feet, are always present, the first step is to always make sure that it isn’t from some infection or other health problem before writing it off as a phantosmia,” says Dr. Liu.

“Any chronic infection in the nose and sinuses can lead to a persistent foul odor. Even an infection from a tooth root in the upper jaw can be the cause.

“Tumors can sometimes also lead to bad smells as well.

“On rare occasions, the cause can be a forgotten foreign object in the nose such as a bean that a toddler stuck in there, a piece of tissue that someone stuffed in the nostril for a nosebleed and didn’t completely take out, a surgical sponge from a prior procedure.

“In general, if you notice a chronic foul odor, a visit to an ear, nose, and throat doctor is recommended.

“Only if no specific cause is found do we consider it phantosmia. If you are experiencing phantosmia of any kind, then other types of testing are probably a good idea, given some of the rare, but potentially serious, causes.

“Thankfully, most cases of phantosmia tend to go away on their own and usually are not associated with any serious medical issues.”

Nevertheless, before you begin freaking out that you might have a sinus tumor (which is actually far more likely to cause a reduction in the sense of smell), you may want to do another thorough check of your house to locate a possible extraneous cause of “everything” smelling like dirty feet.

• This includes your kids’, including a baby’s, bare feet throughout the house.
• A laundry basket or hamper that needs a good cleaning.
• Dirty socks shoved under a sofa pillow.
• Your own feet. Even if you bathe every day, if you wear an old, un-aired-out pair of sneakers during exercise, this can stink up your feet.

Dr. Liu’s clinical areas of focus cover a broad range including surgery of the head and neck, sinuses and thyroid, and disorders of the ears, salivary glands and vocal cords.
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.  
Top image: Shutterstock/ Platslee