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Phantosmia is the bizarre phenomenon of smelling things that simply aren't there. Why would your nose play tricks on you, and what are the treatment options?

"Phantosmia", also known as an olfactory hallucination, is a condition in which your nose plays tricks on you: you smell things that simply aren't there. The smell experience varies from patient to patient, but unfortunately we're not usually talking about roses. Phantosmia patients sense unpleasant smells, which can take over their lives and rob them of the possibility to enjoy food and drinks.

Common phantom smells include smoke, ammonia, spoiled fish, rotten eggs, wet dog, and sewage. This can affect one or both nostrils and be a short- or long-term problem. Have you noticed a nasty odor that others can't perceive?

You'll probably want the answer to two questions. What causes phantosmia, and how can you get rid of it as soon as possible? 

How Do You Smell?

All smells are gases. When particles reach your nose, olfactory sensory neurons send a message to your brain. The brain in turn registers this and identifies the smell. Smells can come in through your nostrils, but they can also enter your mouth — in the form of food, for instance — and find their way to the nose via your throat. 

What Causes Phantosmia?

Phantosmia may seem like a bizarre "freak disorder" to people who have never heard of it. In a sense, it is just that — research indicates that less than one percent of the total population will encounter olfactory hallucinations. It does, however, have a very wide range of possible causes. Sometimes, they'll be easy to identify, but other cases may require extensive investigation. 

I spoke to Dr Dhruv Gupta, a Periodontal specialist who also has experience with Ear, Nose and Throat disorders to find out more. Dr Gupta says that a sinus infection is "probably the most common cause for the occurrence of phantosmia as well as one that is least worrisome". "The infection from the sinuses can travel to other parts of the body and can affect neural function," he says, adding that "this can result in the perception of a physical stimulus that is not present".

Dr Gupta says: "The phantosmia associated with this kind of infection lasts for a short amount of time and usually goes away as the infection clears. A very large majority of the population has reported this kind of phantosmia and is usually nothing to be concerned about."

People who suffer from migraines also often have altered sensory experiences and this could just be related to that. Dr Gupta describes this as "less worrisome and easily managed" as well. "While the phantosmia would be a regular feature as accompanied by migraine, it would subside once the attack has passed," he says. 

Other possible causes of phantosmia that aren't life-threatening or permanently life-altering include nasal polyps, smoking cigarettes (which can certainly be life-threatening in the long run, so set up a quit plan!), and even dental problems.

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