The next time you’re tempted to throw out everything in your fridge, regardless of expiration date, all in hopes of getting rid of well, whatever that smell is, you might want to pause and check yourself. Ditto if you’ve taken out the garbage, scrubbed the floors, and Poo-pourried the toilet to the point that your eyes are watering — all while your family swears they don’t smell a thing (other than Original Citrus, of course) — and are about to tear your hair out. Leave your follicles alone, because you may be driving yourself wild over a scent that’s not actually there.
Recent research at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) looked into phantosmia, or “phantom smells” — scents you’re smelling that no one else can, and have no probable cause for existing — finding that yes, this is a real thing, and it could affect roughly 1 in 15 people. The study, which included more than 7,400 people, found that younger women (specifically those in their 40s and 50s, compared to those in their 60s and 70s) were more likely to detect phantom odors, but that the tendency to smell things others can’t declines as they get older.
Oh, and before somebody tries to gaslight you into believing that funky odor in your living room isn’t their fault — “It’s a phantom odor!” is the new “whoever smelled it, dealt it!” — it is worth noting that a 2014 study found that women have a better sense of smell than men, likely because they have more brain cells in that area. Another determined that the more a woman is exposed to a certain scent, the better able she is to detect trace whiffs of it (while men showed no improvement in this area, according to the The New York Times). So that musky scent you keep smelling? Yes, it could be your husband’s old socks stuffed under the couch.
If it’s not, and you’ve run out of options, it could be phantosmia. The NIH study also found that people with lower incomes and those who’ve suffered from a head injury or chronic dry mouth tend to experience the phenomenon more often. While the cause of these ghost odors isn’t known, the research did suggest that in the issues of those with dry mouth, the medication the people were on could have affected their sense of smell.
Without a clear understanding of the cause of these smells, research like this serves more as a starting point. “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,” Kathleen Bainbridge, Ph.D., told InterestingEngineering.com. “A good first step in understanding any medical condition is a clear description of the phenomenon. From there, other researchers may form ideas about where to look further for possible causes, and ultimately, for ways to prevent or treat the condition.”
Cue up that NBC shooting star from the ’90s: The more you know!