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It Stinks! Or Does It? Study Finds Phantom Odors Impact 1 in 15 Americans

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Recent research has found that 1 in 15 Americans over the age of 40 experience the phenomenon of phantom odors, where they smell scents that aren’t physically present.

A study published in the JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery examined the prevalence of and risk factors for phantom odor perception. Led by Kathleen Bainbridge, Ph.D., of the Epidemiology and Biostatistics Program at the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), the study examined data from the 2011-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), where 7,417 participants over 40 years of age answered questions about their health and sense of smell.

“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."

“The causes of phantom odor perception are not understood. 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. A good first step in understanding any medical condition is a clear description of the phenomenon. 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,” said Bainbridge.

Who Is at Risk?

Using this NHANES survey, researchers examined whether participants “sometimes [smelled] unpleasant, bad or burning odors when nothing is there.” The researchers also explored the correlation between phantom odors and participant characteristics, such as age, sex, education level, race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, certain health habits and general health status. Upon analysis, it was concluded that 1 in 15 Americans (6.5% of the survey) experienced phantom odors.

As our sense of smell decreases with age, the study also found that the prevalence of phantom odor perception also decreased with age and is not related to an individual’s ability to correctly identify odors. Researchers found that women were twice as likely as men to experience the phenomenon. The analysis also indicated that head injury, dry mouth, poor health and low socio-economic can be risk factors for the onset of phantom odors.

“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 Judith A. Cooper, Ph.D., acting director of the NIDCD. 

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