Phantosmia – Spooky Smells Not Just For Halloween

Some people with phantosmia (a form of olfactory disorder collectively known as "dysosmia") smell of rotting corpses. Other people smell trash or rotten food. Imagine biting into a big piece of chocolate cake, just to smell poop dog ghost. Or leaning to sniff a rose that smells like a dead rodent.

I am one of the lucky ones. I smell smoke that is not there. It's better than not feeling the smoke that exists – at least from a safety point of view. Although nothing burns, my throat closes and my lungs are reluctant to breathe deeply. My eyes water. It seems … real. I do not need to ask my family, my friends and my colleagues: "Do you smell of smoke? I recognize the ghost – a slightly plastic chemical smoke. The first time I felt it, I was coming home from work. The air conditioner was on. I immediately thought that the car was on fire. I watched for any sign of malfunction, the slightest smell of smoke, any sign that the electrical system was on fire. I did not panic, but kept an eye on the opportunities to park and drop the car. A car burns fast.

I went home, where I lifted the hood of the car and did a 360-degree visual inspection of the car. Nothing special.

I felt it an hour later. Only this time, I was in the kitchen, preparing dinner. I calmly inspected the appliances, checked the oven and stove for grease or food and made sure I knew where the fire extinguisher was. It was confusing. I asked my husband if he could smell something burning. He said no. I asked the children. Nope. I opened the hatch in the attic. It smelled of wood heated by the sun, insulation and cardboard. No smoking. In fact, the smell of smoke was easily absorbed by the odors of cooking food, the smell of hot attic, a hint of perfume. Again, it turns out that I am one of the lucky ones: I still taste and smell other things quite normally. I can even overwhelm this ghost smoke with real scents. Last night, it was a little Mentholatum on each nostril, just as they do at the morgue. It's not that the smell of smoke, itself, is so terrible; the worst is choking and watering eyes.

The types of disorders of smell range from anosmia (lack of smell) and hyposmia (decrease in smell) to hyperosmia. (sense of excessively sensitive sense of smell), parosmia (feeling the wrong thing)), and phantosmia (hallucinations of smell). Causes include upper respiratory tract infections, head trauma, nasal polyps, sinus infections, hormonal imbalances, dental problems, certain medications, exposure to certain types of chemicals, brain tumors and radiotherapy for head and neck cancers. Apparently, dysosmia can be a symptom of a deadly medical problem – or an end in itself. Obviously, it is important to consult your doctor – and possibly an ENT or neurologist – to eliminate more serious physical problems. It can also be psychological.

If you suffer from phantosmia, it's a good idea to keep a diary detailing the smells: what time they hit, what they smell, what could have triggered them. Brewing coffee is a reliable trigger for me; stress seems to make the phantosmia more likely. There are indications that soy consumption also triggers ghost odors. You may be able to get some relief from the symptoms by using a saline nasal wash. It is recommended to do it on all fours, the top of the head on the ground, for maximum effect. Track the results – you can discover other things that cause odor or things that make it go away. Once your doctor has dismissed things like brain tumors and nasal polyps, you may be your best resource for relieving symptoms.

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