A small but very real percentage of people often smell odors that aren't actually there. About one in 15 Americans over the age of 40 regularly experience so-called phantom odors. But we have no idea why, according to a new study publishedThursday in JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery.
The study, led by researchers from the National of Institutes of Health, is the largest to take a detailed look at the issue, said lead author Kathleen Bainbridge, a researcher at the National Institutes on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NICCD).
"We knew that phantom odor perception had been observed in medical clinics, but we did not know how common this condition was, nor what types of people are more commonly affected," she told Gizmodo via email.
Bainbridge and her team studied data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, an annual, nationally representative study of Americans' lifestyle habits and overall health. They specifically looked at more than 7,000 people over the age of 40 who had taken the survey from 2011 to 2014. Of these, 6.5 percent, or 534 people, answered yes to a question asking if they ever sometimes smelled "an unpleasant, bad, or burning odor when nothing is there."