The Phantom Odor: Many Americans Smell Scents That Aren’t There

BETHESDA, Md. — What if that burnt hair you’re smelling isn’t really there? Turns out there’s a fairly good chance it’s not, according to new research.

A new survey found that one in 15 Americans over the age of 40 suffer from “phantom odor perception,” that is, they smell scents that aren’t real. This study is the first in the U.S. to use nationally representative data to analyze the prevalence and risk factors of phantom odor perception.

Researchers at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) analyzed data from 7,417 Americans over the age of 40 who participated in the 2011-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey.

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

The researchers posed questions aimed at determining if participants perceived odors that didn’t seem to have a specific cause, then looked at their age, gender, education level, race and ethnicity, socio-economic status, general health status, and certain unhealthy habits.

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Generally, everyone experiences a decline in the ability to discern specific odors as they age, but phantom odor perception seems to improve as people get older. While a certain percentage of people in other countries have been shown to experience phantom odor perception over the age of 60, the NIDCD’s new study showed a larger prevalence of the disorder occurring in individuals between the ages of 40 and 60. Women in this age group were far more likely than men to experience phantom odors.

Other risk factors include head injuries, bad overall health, low socio-economic status, dry mouth problems, and more.

The study was published in the September 2018 edition of JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.