• Do You Smell That? Phantom Smells and Why We Have Them

    Do You Smell That? Phantom Smells and Why We Have Them

We all know to worry about the smell of burnt orange, but what about orange juice? Phantom smells come in many forms and not all of them are causes for concern. However, it’s essential to know the difference between harmless hallucinations and when to sniff out danger.

What are Phantom Smells

Phantosmia, the fancy word for phantom smells, is a sense of smell disorder. It occurs when a person smells something that isn’t there. The odor may only affect one side of the nose or both nostrils. This is a relatively uncommon condition and makes up to 20% of smell-related disorders. Most cases lack a need for concern and will dissipate on their own. However, a rare number of cases indicate a health problem and should always be discussed with your doctor. Phantom smells can range over a variety of odors from pleasant to unpleasant with the most common being:

  • Burnt toast
  • Burning rubber
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Chemical or metallic smell
  • Spoiled or rotting smell
  • Stale or moldy smell

Oftentimes, sufferers are unable to identify the smell.

What Causes Phantosmia?

There are many reasons people experience phantom smells. Whether related to the nose or cognitive function, called central phantosmia, phantom smells can be distressing. Phantom smell problems with your nasal cavity may include:

  • Nasal polyps
  • Chronic sinus infections
  • Allergies
  • Tumors

Phantom smells associated with central phantosmia may include:

  • Epilepsy or seizures
  • Parkinson’s disease
  • Head trauma
  • Migraines
  • Stroke
  • Depression
  • Medications

Phantosmia vs. Parosmia

Sometimes, phantosmia is confused with parosmia. Parosmia is a distorted sense of smell, when you are smelling real things but not accurately. For example, smelling oranges might smell like chemical cleaner instead. People with parosmia often describe the smells as unpleasant.

To make things even more confusing, phantosmia and parosmia often occur congruently, though parosmia is more common. Symptoms of parosmia range from mild to severe with the most severe forms causing debilitation as sufferers struggle to manage their symptoms.


A diagnosis of phantosmia is performed by a doctor after a physical exam of the patient’s head and neck. They may inquire about other symptoms and perform further tests based on your answers to narrow down possibilities.

Further tests may include endoscopy or rhinoscopy to get a better look at the nasal cavity and rule out polyps or tumors.

When to Worry

Phantosmia is not often cause for concern, but if you are experiencing phantom smells you should always talk to your doctor.

Strange smells stressing you out? Learn how to manage your stress here!

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Twin Towers is a continuing care retirement community in Cincinnati, Ohio, with independent living homes, assisted living, rehab services, and more. We’re focused on supporting the vibrant and active lifestyles of our residents so they can age well. For more information, contact Twin Towers online or at 513-853-2000.

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