1 in 15 Americans over 40 smell odors that aren’t really there

Do you smell what I smell? While some coworkers are going about their day, your nose may be telling you that something in the office is on fire. The good news is that you are not alone in smelling this. Phantom smells may actually be more common than we think.

In JAMA Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, researchers from the National Institutes of Health and National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders discovered that one in 15 Americans over the age of 40 have from “phantom odor perception,” —they are experiencing smells that are not actually there.

What’s that smell?

Using nationally representative data from 7,417 participants over 40 years of age, the researchers found that many Americans said they sometimes smelled an unpleasant, bad, or burning odor when nothing was there. More women experience these phantom smells than men. Twice as many women as men reported these phantom odors, according to the new study.

Smelling a weird smell is not just a distraction, it affects your health. When you cannot smell properly, your body pays a price. “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,” Judith A. Cooper, acting director of the NIDCD, said in a statement.

Researchers do not know the exact causes of phantom odor perception, but the condition was associated with people in poorer health, those who a history of head injuries, and those who were experiencing dry mouth symptoms. The researchers also suggest that having overactive smell cells could also be a cause.

“The causes of phantom odor perception are not understood,” Kathleen Bainbridge, one of the authors of the study, said. “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.”