science of us

Why Do I Keep Smelling Something That Isn’t Really There?

Photo: ozgurdonmaz/Getty Images/iStockphoto

This past weekend, my mother was in town to visit, and to help me organize and beautify my new apartment (thanks, Mom). It was a lovely time, with one strange exception: She kept saying she smelled … urine. The first time she said it, it made sense: we were on the New York subway, a notoriously urine-y form of public transportation. I didn’t smell it myself, but I assumed that was because my nostrils have acclimatized after living here for five years. The second time my mom told me she smelled urine, though, we were in my aforementioned apartment, which does not smell like urine, thank you very much. I still didn’t smell anything, and my mom was forced to concede that maybe she just had “urine on the brain.”

Imagine my delight (and relief) when, days later, I came across a new study published in my favorite magazine, JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, about “phantom odors,” a phenomenon experienced by one in 15 Americans over the age of 40.

Though one’s sense of smell tends to decrease with age, the tendency to smell “phantom odors,” or smells without any source, increases as we get older. Unfortunately, these phantom odors are most often unpleasant ones. Donald Leopold, one of the study’s authors, says that people who experience strong phantom odors may experience reduced appetite, and may subsequently struggle to maintain a healthy weight.

Interestingly, this phenomenon appears to affect women more than men; in their survey, researchers found that twice as many women as men reported phantom orders. One’s predilection toward phantom smells is also thought to be affected by people who’ve sustained a head injury, are in poor health, or low socioeconomic status — the latter of which might mean more exposure to environmental pollutants, which contribute to phantom odors directly or through the medication required to treat pollutant-caused health conditions.

Still, researchers say it’s not totally clear who experiences phantom odors and why. Said another of the study’s authors, Kathleen Bainbridge, in a press release, “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.” It’s also possible that some of the people experiencing so-called phantom smells are just really good smellers, though it is in my interest to believe that is not the case with my mother. For the last time, my apartment does not smell like pee.

Why Do I Keep Smelling Something That Isn’t Really There?