Phantom smells

Depression, Immune | August 11, 2017 | Author: Naturopath

Immune, sinus, depression

Phantom smells

Phantosmia is the medical term for people who smell an imaginary odour. This means that the person will smell something that is not actually there. The condition can also be called phantom smell or olfactory hallucination. In phantosmia the smell is often unique and can sometimes be very unpleasant. If the scent is described as burning, rotten or foul it is then referred to as cacosmia. The smell can be in one or both nostrils and often spoils the taste of any food or drink consumed. Phantom smells can go away by themselves and are usually not caused by anything serious. However, if the smell doesn’t go away it can be very upsetting and disrupt a person’s quality of life.

How do we smell?How do we smell?

In order for you to smell something tiny molecules evaporate from its surface and reach your nose. Therefore, everything you smell is giving off molecules—whether it’s cookies baking in the oven, roses in the garden or smoke in the air. These odour molecules then travel to the back of your nose where they reach specialised nerve cells (olfactory sensory neurons) which connect directly to your brain. These nerve cells detect the odour and cause you to perceive a smell.

There are two ways in which odours can reach the olfactory sensory neurons:

  • Through the nostrils.
  • From the throat to the back of the nasal cavity. When you eat food odour molecules are released. When you swallow, the tongue pushes this air to the back of the nasal cavity. This is known as “retro-nasal olfaction”.

What causes phantom smells?

Phantosmia can be caused by a wide range of things which include:

  • Nasal or dental problems. After a nasal infection, most typically a sinus infection, some people can start to perceive a smell. It can become more noticeable after they sneeze or cough but generally goes away after the infection has cleared. Nasal polyps are abnormal growths of tissue inside the nasal passages and sinuses which can also contribute to phantom smells.
  • Neurological conditions, such as head injuries, strokes, Parkinson’s disease, seizures and brain tumours. Some people can experience phantom odours just before or during a migraine. This occurs because nerve cells send abnormal smell signals to the brain or there is a problem with the brain itself.
  • Mental disorders, including bipolar, depression and psychotic disorders or intoxication or withdrawal from drugs and alcohol.
  • Environmental exposure to cigarette smoke, insecticides, solvents or radiation treatment for head or neck cancer.


'Phantosmia' all about smells that aren't there diagnosisYour doctor will be able to distinguish whether the problem is with your sense of taste or smell, or if it is caused by a neurological or psychiatric disorder. 

You may be referred to an ear, nose or throat specialist for further tests. This may include a nasal endoscopy, where a small tube with a tiny camera attached checks for abnormalities in the nasal passages.

An MRI or CT scan can help to rule out tumours, infections or obstructions.

How is phantosmia treated?

In some cases treatment isn’t necessary as most people find that the smell gradually fades over time. In some instances doctors may prescribe sedatives, antidepressants or anti-epileptic drugs and in rare cases surgery is required. Although there is a lack of research in the area, natural therapies may offer some solutions to help relieve the problem.


If phantosmia is due to an infection in the nasal passages or sinuses there are lots of natural treatment options. Garlic, horseradish and eyebright act as natural decongestants, helping to unblock the sinuses and remove congestion. They also help to fight off infection. Rinsing out the nasal passages with saline may help to provide temporary relief by blocking the smell signals going to your brain. A similar result may be achieved with a saline spray containing eucalyptus or tea tree.

Avoiding triggers

An article published in BioMed Central, ear nose and throat disorders, has identified a long list of triggers for distorted smell perception. Here are some activities to avoid:

  • Underwater swimming
  • Hot or cold air, for example heat from a heater, hot weather or the interior of fridges and freezers
  • Volatile perfumes and scented beauty products were by far the most frequently mentioned trigger
  • Fruits, mainly citrus and melon
  • Tobacco and petrol
  • Coffee and chocolate

Natural anti-depressants

If phantosmia is related to mental disorders, particularly depression, St John’s wort may be helpful. Although there is no information to verify it’s use in phantom smells, it has proven efficacy in mild to severe depression. In addition to this, St John’s wort has the ability to protect our nerves against damage from toxins, possibly due to its antioxidant capabilities. Other natural therapies that provide support to our nervous system include a vitamin B complex (especially B12), magnesium and SAMe.


GABAGamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), is a neurotransmitter that reduces neuronal excitability throughout the nervous system. It regulates many of the depressive and sedative actions in the brain and is critical for relaxation.

In people with phantosmia, levels of GABA have been found to be low in several regions in the central nervous system. GABA is available as a supplement through your naturopath or doctor but there are other ways in which GABA can naturally be increased.

Exercise, eating foods high in glutamine (almonds, bananas, oats and rice bran), certain herbs and taking a B complex are such examples.

If you are suffering from phantosmia, the trick to addressing the problem is to first identify the cause. Speak to your naturopath or doctor to see how they can offer an individual solution for your needs.



Hong SC, et al. Distorted olfactory perception: a systematic review. Acta otolaryngol. 2012 Jun;132 Suppl 1:S27-31

Keller A, Malaspina D. Hidden consequences of olfactory dysfunction: a patient report series. BMC Ear nose throat disord. 2013 Jul 23;13(1):8

Oliveira AL, et al. Neuroprotective activity of hypericum perforatum and its major constituents. Front Plant Sci. 2016 Jul 11;7:1004

Levy LM, Henkin RI. Brain gamma-aminobutyric acid levels are decreased in patients with phantageusia and phantosmia demonstrated by magnetic resonance spectroscopy. J Comput Assist Tomogr. 2004 Nov-Dec;28(6):721-7

backBack to Blog Home