A new study finds that one in 15 Americans (or 6.5%) over the age of 40 experiences phantom odors. The study is the first in the US to use nationally representative data to examine the prevalence of and risk factors for phantom odor perception. The study could inform future research aiming to unlock the mysteries of phantom odors.

Imagine the foul smell of an ashtray or burning hair. Now imagine if these kinds of smells were present in your life, but without a source. A new study finds that 1 in 15 Americans (or 6.5 percent) over the age of 40 experiences phantom odors.

Research examines the prevalence of and risk factors for phantom odor perception. The study could inform future research aiming to unlock the mysteries of phantom odors. The study was published in JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery.

They used data from 7,417 participants over 40 years of age from the 2011-2014 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES). The NHANES data were collected by the National Center for Health Statistics, which is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; the NIDCD partly funded data collection.

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 such as fire, gas leaks, and spoiled food

Phantom Odor Perception

They add that patients who perceive strong phantom odors often have a miserable quality of life, and sometimes cannot maintain a healthy weight. Researchers used this NHANES survey question to determine whether participants had experienced phantom odor perception, to explore the correlation between phantom odors and participant characteristics, the researchers looked at participants' age, sex, education level, race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, certain health habits, and general health status.

The ability to identify odors tends to decrease with age. Phantom odor perception, on the other hand, seems to improve with age. One previous study, using data from a community in Sweden, showed that 4.9% of people over the age of 60 phantom experience odors, with a higher prevalence in women than men.

Prevalence

The present study found a similar prevalence in the over-60 age group, but in examining a broader age range, found an even higher prevalence in ages 40-60. The study also found that about twice as many women as men reported phantom odors and that the female predominance was particularly striking for those under age 60.

Other risk factors for the onset of phantom odors include head injury, dry mouth, poor overall health, and low socio-economic status. Researchers hypothesized that people with lower socioeconomic status might more commonly be exposed to environmental pollutants and toxins, or have health conditions that contribute to phantom odors, either directly or because of medications needed to treat their health conditions.

Odor 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. 

Prevention

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.