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Some Americans smell odors that aren’t there, study says

Have you ever smelled something distinct, like an ash tray or burning, only to realize nothing is there? The condition is pretty common, according to a new report.

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Researchers from the National Institutes of Health and National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) recently conducted a study, published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, to examine the prevalence and risk factors for phantom odor perception, which occurs when people smell things that don’t actually exist.

To do so, they gathered data from 7,417 participants over 40 years of age from the 2011-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They used the information to determine whether participants had experienced phantom odor perception with questions like, “Do you sometimes smell an unpleasant, bad, or burning odor when nothing is there?”

The analysts then factored in their age, sex, education level, race, socioeconomic status, certain health habits and general health status to find the link between phantom odors and the participant’s characteristics.

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After analyzing the results, they discovered that the ability to identify odors decreases with age, while phantom odor perception seems to improve with age. 

Furthermore, they said that one in 15 Americans experience phantom odors. It was most prevalent among adults aged 40-60, and twice as many women as men reported the condition, particularly women under age 60. 

“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,” Judith A. Cooper, acting director of the NIDCD, said in a statement.

The authors also explained that those “who perceive strong phantom odors often have a miserable quality of life, and sometimes cannot maintain a healthy weight.”

The scientists do not  yet know the causes of phantom odor perception. However, they hypothesized that it could be related to overactive odor sensing cells. 

“A good first step in understanding any medical condition is a clear description of the phenomenon,” coathor Kathleen Bainbridge added. “From there, other researchers may form ideas about where to look further for possible causes and ultimately for ways to prevent or treat the condition.”

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