Phantom smells are a real thing, study finds

Women and smokers are more likely to report phantom odour perception

Around one in 15 adults report phantom odour perception — the experience of unpleasant, bad or burning odour when no actual smell exists — according to a new US study.

bad smells

"There are more people with this condition than has been previously reported," said Dr Donald Leopold of the University of Vermont Medical Centre.

"People with this condition avoid telling medical providers about this symptom."

Dr Leopold and colleagues used data from the 2011-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to evaluate associations between phantom odour perception and sociodemographic factors, certain health behaviours and health conditions among more than 7400 middle-aged and older US adults.

Overall, 534 participants, or 6.5%, responded affirmatively to the question, "Do you sometimes smell an unpleasant, bad, or burning odour when nothing is there?"

The prevalence of phantom odour perception declined with age, but women were about twice as likely as men in every age group to report the condition, the researchers noted in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery.

Current or former cigarette smoking was more common among those reporting phantom odour perception.

And people who reported the experience were about half as likely to consume alcohol at least three days per week than those not reporting phantom odours.

Those with persistent dry mouth and those with a history of head injury with loss of consciousness were more likely to report phantom odour perception.

"This is a real problem that affects many people," Dr Leopold added.

"Be sensitive to people with this symptom."

Read the full study here.