If you’ve been smelling things that aren’t there (phantosmia), you’re in good company: lots of it.
Phantosmia is also far more common in people over the age of 40, says a study.
According to the study, which was published in a 2018 JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, one in 15 Americans experience this sometimes very alarming phenomenon. That’s 6.5 percent.
The study was led by Kathleen Bainbridge, PhD, using data from over 7,400 participants at least 40, from the 2011-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).
Phantosmia is not to be confused with parosmia. Parosmia is smelling something that IS there, but the sense of the odor is impaired.
The NHANES survey question asked if sometimes, one would smell something bad, unpleasant or burning when no source of the odor could be found.
The NHANES data also includes participants’ age, sex, educational level, socioeconomic status, health habits and general health status.
The paper points out that the ability to identify actual existing odors declines as we age. However, smelling something that’s not there becomes more common as people get older.
The JAMA paper also notes a previous study from Sweden that showed 4.9 percent of people over 60 experienced phantosmia.
Dr. Bainbridge’s study showed a similar frequency in the over 60 group, but the commonality of phantosmia was even greater in those 40 to 59. Twice as many women than men reported being affected.
Associations for Smelling Phantom Odors
• Dry mouth
• Poor overall health
• Low socioeconomic status
• Head injury
“The causes of phantom odor perception are not understood,” says Dr. Bainbridge in the paper.
“The condition could be related to overactive odor sensing cells in the nasal cavity,” she continues, “or perhaps a malfunction in the part of the brain that understands odor signals.”
A brain tumor can cause phantosmia, says David Poulad, MD, a board certified neurosurgeon, in this article.