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HomeMedicinePhantom smells: How common are they and who experiences them?  

Phantom smells: How common are they and who experiences them?  

Researchers determined the prevalence of adults experiencing phantom smells and its associated sociodemographic factors, health behaviours, and health conditions.

Phantom smells is a condition in which individuals smell odors that are not actually present. They are caused by dysfunctions in the body’s sensory system, the peripheral olfactory system. Individuals who experience phantom odors describe odors as foul, rotten, or chemical-like. Individuals affected may also experience depression, migraines, viral infections, and head trauma. Current treatments are not reliably effective. Because of this, symptoms will either improve, become worse, or go away.

To researchers’ knowledge, the epidemiology of phantom smells in the United States has yet to be described. Because of this, researchers recently determined the prevalence of phantom smells and the factors that are associated with it.

In the study published by JAMA, 7,417 individuals participated in a cross-sectional study where they provided sociodemographic and health information by taking the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They also completed physical examinations. Over half of the participants were women. Adults 40 and older were asked, “Do you sometimes smell unpleasant, bad, or burning odor when nothing is there?”

Middle-aged women are more likely to experience phantom smells

The results showed that 534 participants experienced phantom smells. They estimated that phantom smells occur in about 6.5% of adults who are 40 years old or older. Prevalence was very different by age and sex. Women under 60 years old were more likely to experience this phenomenon in comparison to older women. Interestingly, this age-related decline is prevalent in women but not in men. Another interesting finding is that women were two times more likely to experience phantom smells than men. Phantom smells were mostly found in men who were 60-69 years old.

Persistent dry mouth and head injuries are associated with phantom smells

They also found that persistent dry mouth and head injuries are strongly associated with this condition. Participants in a lower range of income and socioeconomic status as well as poorer health were most likely to experience phantom smells.

A limitation to this study is that some participants who were considered to experience phantom odors may have actually had burning mouth syndrome or oral phantom sensations. This could affect the prevalence percentage. The authors mention that further studies should be conducted on phantom smells to increase awareness.

Written by Laura Laroche, HBASc, Medical Writer

Reference: Bainbridge, E. Kathleen, Byrd-Clark, Danita, and Leopold, Donald. “Factors Associated With Phantom Odor Perception Among US Adults.” JAMA. August 23, 2018. E1-E1. Online.



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