Phantom Smells Are A Serious Warning Sign For Your Health

Our sense of smell plays a crucial role in our perception of the world around us. But sometimes, we might smell things that aren't really there. This is called "phantosmia" or "olfactory hallucination." A report published in 2017 in Continuum states that phantosmia is a type of olfactory disorder that can affect one or both sides of the nose, be constant or intermittent, and the perceived odors can be pleasant or unpleasant.

Olfactory hallucinations are more common than you might think, and a variety of factors can cause these phantom smells. It's essential to pay attention to these phantom smells, as they can be a powerful indicator of your overall well-being. They may indicate an underlying health concern requiring medical attention, such as neurological disorders, sinus problems, or psychological factors. Exploring the intricacies of your sense of smell and the triggers that lead to these uninvited fragrances can help you know when to consult a healthcare professional and how to cope with these intriguing and, at times, alarming experiences.

Causes and contributors of phantom smells

Olfactory hallucinations can be important indicators of underlying health issues. In some cases, phantom smells may result from sinus and respiratory issues, like sinusitis and nasal polyps, which can disrupt air and mucus flow in the nasal passages, leading to an altered perception of odors. It can follow a severe respiratory infection, such as COVID-19, according to Mayo Clinic. It can also be brought on by dental problems (per Cleveland Clinic). 

The study in Continuum states that phantosmia is a common symptom of a head injury that has damaged the olfactory nerve or the olfactory cortex, which is responsible for processing smell. Additionally, phantosmia can be associated with various medical conditions, including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, multiple sclerosis, and epilepsy. It can also be a side effect of certain medications, such as antidepressants and anticonvulsants.

According to a 2022 report in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, psychological factors such as stress, anxiety, and medication can also influence the perception of phantom smells, as emotional and psychological distress may cause the brain to misinterpret sensory data, resulting in olfactory hallucinations. 

When to see a doctor for phantom smells

Knowing when to reach out to a healthcare provider if you're experiencing phantom smells can help you identify any underlying health issues and manage these experiences effectively. 

If you experience persistent or recurring phantom smells lasting longer than three weeks, it's a good idea to speak with a healthcare professional. 

Another red flag that warrants medical consultation is the presence of accompanying symptoms. For instance, if you notice headaches, dizziness, memory issues, or changes in behavior, especially following a head injury, seek medical help right away. These additional symptoms could indicate a serious medical issue that requires immediate attention, such as a traumatic brain injury (per Mayo Clinic).

Also, if the phantom smells affect your daily routine, work, or social life, or you suddenly experience severe phantom smells that cause anxiety or distress, it's best to seek medical attention. Ignoring this issue could have a significant impact on your overall well-being.

Diagnosis and treatment of phantom smells

A healthcare professional can help you figure out what's causing the problem and come up with a treatment plan that's right for you. Your appointment will likely involve a detailed discussion about your symptoms, including when they started, how often they occur, and if there are any other health issues you're dealing with. Just be as honest and open as possible to help your healthcare professional make an accurate diagnosis. 

Your doctor may conduct a physical exam to rule out any underlying health issues contributing to the symptoms. They might refer you to a specialist — like a neurologist or an ear, nose, and throat specialist — for a more in-depth evaluation of your olfactory hallucinations. They may also recommend specific diagnostic tests, including olfactory function tests to evaluate your sense of smell, a nasal endoscopy to look at your sinus passages, and imaging studies like MRI or CT scans to evaluate the structure of your brain. 

After assessment and tests, your healthcare provider will discuss a diagnosis or possible causes of your phantom smells. They will work with you to develop a treatment plan, which may involve medical interventions, lifestyle changes, or therapies to address the underlying cause and alleviate any phantom smells you are experiencing.