Ohhhh, That Smell
Or, “I'm no fan of phantosmia”
In this blog post, I will attempt to share some of my current thoughts and related ideas on "phantom smells".
It all began on March 7, 2022. I was driving on the highway when I suddenly sniffed something stinky. It was clearly the car in front of me. Although I didn't see any smoke, I certainly smelled the dirty exhaust. So, I switched lanes, sped past the offending auto, and continued my journey. But the smell persisted. I then began to wonder if my own engine was running hot. However, even after I stopped, the smell remained. At that point, I figured the smell was stuck deep in my nose and assumed it would dissipate soon. Unfortunately, even after a shower and meal, the smell didn’t fade. And that’s when I knew that there was probably a problem.
A few Google searches later, I was fairly sure I had Phantosmia.
Phantosmia (from Ancient Greek φάντασμα or “phantom” and ὀσμή or "smell") is a medical condition involving olfactory hallucinations. In other words, “you detect smells that aren't really there”.
Phantosmia is related to several other olfactory conditions, such as Parosmia (“confusing smells”), Hyposmia (“reduced smell”), and Anosmia (“total loss of smell”). The actual experience of Phantosmia is similar but unique for each person. Some people report smelling unpleasant odors that are roughly described as "burnt", "foul", "rotten", "smoky", "sewage", "metallic" or "chemical”. However, there are also accounts of pleasant odors, like “strawberries”, “maple syrup”, or "popcorn".
Since it began for me, the smell has grown in intensity and rarely abates. In my case, I very clearly smell “burning motor oil”. And, although it might seem strange, it is almost as if the smell only exists in my mind - although I can clearly identify a specific odor, it doesn't feel like it is originating from/through my nose. Additionally, I can still taste adequately and smell accurately (albeit only slightly - I need to stick my nose near the actual odorant in order to overpower the phantom smell). The phantom smell is so pervasive, persistent, and strong that it is often distracting, which is affecting my mood, sleep, and stress levels. Further, the possible, underlying causes are mostly unnerving...
From my research, Phantosmia still isn’t very well understood. Recent studies seem to show that Phantosmia might be a long-term side-effect of COVID-19, which can cause “tissue damage in regions functionally-connected to the primary olfactory cortex”. But older research suggests many other diverse causes including nasal/sinus infections, tumors, head trauma, epilepsy, depression, stress, stroke, migraines, and neurological disorders such as schizophrenia and Alzheimer's disease. Although figures vary, Phatosmia seems to be relatively rare, with chances increasing with age (40+).
While I’m fairly confident that I have Phantosmia, I still need to get a medical diagnosis and investigation into the underlying cause(s). I had a mild case of COVID in December 2021, so I’m guessing and hoping that’s the primary/only cause. After diagnosis comes treatment, and hopefully a cure.
Meanwhile…Yes, Lynyrd Skynyrd, I can smell that smell.
I’ll update this post as I get new information.