Many people who have suffered from COVID-19 report that one of the most bothersome symptoms of the disease is the loss of smell and, consequently, of taste. Although it may seem like a rather minor problem beforehand, the alteration of these senses generates not only annoyance and irritation, but also the risk that, for example, something is burned or a food is in bad condition and one does not realize it .
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Its loss, partial or total, is not the only dysfunction that smell can suffer. There are also olfactory hallucinations. Less is said about them than about optical illusions, about the times when we think we hear some noise that has not really existed, even about wrong tactile sensations, such as when it seems that the mobile phone vibrates in our pocket when in reality it does not. we have there. However, “ghost odors” are a more common phenomenon than you might think.
Fake and unpleasant odors
Phantosmia – the disorder that leads a person to perceive odors that are not actually in the environment where that person is – affects up to 6.5% of the population over forty years of age. That is, one in every fifteen people. To that conclusion a study of 2018, conducted by scientists in the United States with data from 7,417 people.
According to the same work, the problem is twice as common in women as in men and it tends to increase in intensity with age. In this sense, the opposite happens with the sense of smell in general, whose ability diminishes with the passage of time. The effects of phantosmia are, of course, quite annoying, since the perceived smells are usually, in addition to false, unpleasant: burning, smoke, chemical substances or rotten food, among others.
A year earlier another investigation on the same topic. Conducted in Sweden, it analyzed a sample of 2,569 people between 60 and 90 years of age. Those who experienced phantosmia represented 4.9% of the total. Also in this case the majority were women. The scientists noted that nine people felt phantom odors with autobiographical overtones: childhood memories, a smell perceived during a fire many years before, or the scent of your deceased partners.
The imaginary odors produced by this phenomenon they harm the quality of life of those who suffer them. They can prevent them from enjoying food or feeling rejection by it and cause annoyance, anxiety and, over time, lead to a picture of depression. Therefore, it is advisable to go to a doctor’s office to assess the situation and try to solve it.
Possible causes of phantosmia
Although scientists still do not know exactly what causes this disorder to appear, they agree to basically distinguish two types of phantosmia: peripheral and central. Peripheral phantosmia has its origin in olfactory sensory neurons, that is, the cells responsible for perceiving odors.
These cells are located in the tissues of the upper inner part of the nose. The smells reach them in two ways: the most common, the nostrils; the other, the conduit that communicates them with the throat. This connection is what allows us to identify the flavor of what we eat, regardless of whether it is something sweet salty, bitter, acid or umami.
The origin of peripheral phantosmia would be in these sensory cells, which could be affected by problems ranging from rhinitis and sinusitis to polyps and nasal tumors. By the way, dental or oral problems should not be ruled out: they can generate bad odors that are not “ghosts”, since they actually exist, although they are often difficult to identify.
You also have to be careful of the possible confusion that cleaning products, air conditioning filters and other external elements can cause that generate unfamiliar odors. So always It is a good idea to ask someone else if they also smell that smell.
Phantom odors and brain receptors
The central phantosmia implies that the problem is in the brain receptors. It is, therefore, of higher risk, since it can be associated with important problems, such as migraines, epilepsy, diabetes, head trauma, stroke, schizophrenia and Parkinson’s disease.
Various studies have found that, although infrequently, olfactory hallucinations are part of the migraine aura, the set of symptoms that precede a migraine. These symptoms are usually visual (flashes of light, blind spots, zigzagging patterns), but sometimes they also include phantosmia. A study of 2011 noted that these phantom odors used to last between five minutes and an hour, and sometimes also appeared before a headache that did not amount to a migraine.
The people with epilepsy, on many occasions, also they experience an aura: it is the announcement that you are going to suffer a crisis, which can be partial or generalized. Its possible signs are, in addition to the phantom smell or a strange taste, a feeling of fear or illness, although in other cases, curiously, the feeling it produces is of well-being.
Diabetes and cognitive impairment, other possible associations
Also the patients with diabetes and taking insulin they exhibit a significant tendency to smell phantom odors. This was determined by the results of a investigation carried out by experts from the United States, China and Spain and published in 2017. The same work also explored other olfactory dysfunctions, such as hyposmia (partial loss of smell) and anosmia (its total loss).
Beyond the associations with these diseases, perhaps the greatest risk is that olfactory hallucinations are the result of cognitive impairment that leads to other diseases, such as dementia or Parkinson’s. For all these reasons, it is important to consult a specialistSince phantom odors, in addition to damaging the quality of life, can be a sign of other problems. And if those other problems exist, they can be treated more effectively the sooner they are detected.
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