Sometimes your mind can play tricks on you: you see something that isn’t there or you think you hear someone calling your name. Maybe you remember an incident differently than it really happened.
But while most of the time these strange coincidences can be innocuous and confusing, they are rarely ever dangerous. That is, of course, unless you smell something that really isn’t there. Apparently, that might be a sign of a far more serious condition.
According to a study published recently in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, researchers attest that “phantom odors” might be a sign of certain health conditions or other problems. The study intimates that as many as 1 in 15 Americans (over the age of 40) can detect strange odors—like burning hair or even rotting food—when there is actually nothing there at all.
Acting director of the National Institute on Deafness and Communication Disorders (which is part of the US National Institutes of Health), Judith A. Cooper notes, “Problems with the sense of smell are often overlooked, despite their importance. They can have a big impact on appetite, food preferences and the ability to smell danger signals such as fire, gas leaks and spoiled food.”
Now, olfactory issues affect millions of Americans. This includes conditions like anosmia (the inability to smell), hyposmia (decreased sense of smell), and parosmia (distorted sense of smell). And those who have an olfactory disorder often also have issues with taste (as these two senses are, inherently linked).
Lead study author Kathleen Bainbridge—who also happens to be a researcher with the National Institutes on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders—also comments, “The condition could be related to overactive odor-sensing cells in the nasal cavity or perhaps a malfunction in the part of the brain that understands odor signals.”
She goes on to add, “We knew that phantom odor perception had been observed in medical clinics, but we did not know how common this condition was, nor what types of people are more commonly affected.”
All in all, the study suggests that risk factors for this type of condition might include head injury, dry mouth, and low socioeconomic status. It also seems to more often affect people who are struggling financially since they typically experience poorer health, overall; and it may also have something to do with medications they take or that they are more prone to smoking, which affects health as well as the sense of smell.