Smelling burning material when there isn’t any smoke is a fairly common phenomenon, and has been linked to a whole host of causes.
Fortunately, this symptom does not immediately indicate a serious illness. as some of the causes can be perfectly innocent. However, it could be an early symptom of something serious, so here’s a look at this puzzling phenomenon, and some remedies that could help if you suffer from it.
Olfactory Hallucination or Dysfunction
Smelling smoke, when nobody else around you can, is most likely a form of olfactory hallucination known as phantosmia, or an olfactory dysfunction known as parosmia.
In the case of phantosmia, it is the perception of a smell in the absence of any physical odors. So, a hallucination of something that does not actually exist. In a 2013 study, by the Center for Molecular Nutrition and Sensory Disorder, they discovered that phantosmia was often initiated by one of the following: coughing, laughing, crying, sneezing, blowing the nose, loud speech or shouting, any intense emotional outburst, physical exertion, strenuous exercise, forced nasal inhalation and/or exhalation or hyperventilation.
While Jerry W. Swanson, M.D, from the Mayo Clinic, explains that, “phantosmia most often occurs as a result of a head injury or upper respiratory infection.” Both indicating that it can be brought on by a great number of factors.
Parosmia, on the other hand, is not the perception of a smell in the absence of an odor, but a misinterpretation of a physical stimulus. In this instance the the brain fails to properly identify an odor’s “natural” smell, and transforms it into something different, typically something burning.
The causes for both phantosmia and parosmia remain the same, and can vary from something completely innocent, to something extremely serious. One thing to be aware of is whether you experience this sensation for just a fleeting moment, or whether it recurs more frequently. As Dr. Jordan S. Josephson, MD, Ear, Nose and Throat Specialist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, and author of Sinus Relief Now, explains, “The bottom line is that many people may get this sensation at one time or another. If it comes and goes, then and again, there is probably nothing to worry about. However, there are a few conditions that can cause parosmia to recur frequently, and lasts longer, and this is something that needs to be looked at carefully.”
Why You May be Smelling Smoke
1. Brain Tumors. There are numerous diseases that phantosmia and parosmia are associated with, the most serious being that the smelling of smoke is brought on as a result of a brain tumor. As Dr. Josephson, goes on to say, “a tumor of the brain or the olfactory nerve can cause phantom smells. If a brain tumor is the cause it could be an aesthesioneuroblastoma. A brain tumor that would cause you to smell cigarette smoke or burning material would usually be located in the temporal lobe of the brain.”
However, a brain tumor is the worst possible scenario. More likely is that it is a result of an upper respiratory tract infection (URTIs), as examined in a 2006 study by J Frasnelli titled Euosmia: a rare form of parosmia, who hypothesizes that URTIs can result in parosmia because of damage to olfactory receptor neurons.
2. Infection. Another possibility is an infection that invades the sinuses or throat, as these can harm the nerves that pick up scents. Dr. Josephson explains that smelling smoke ‘usually follows a sinus infection or an upper respiratory tract infection.”
3. Stroke or Seizures. Equally, the sensation of smelling smoke can actually be related to neurologic problems such as a stroke, seizure disorder or epilepsy. The smell of smoke may be the only symptom of having a seizure.
4. Impairment of Your Nose. While, there are some experts that believe that phantosmia often arises because of a loss of some of the ability to smell normally. Donald Leopold, M.D., Chairman of the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Nebraska, who has been studying olfactory disorders for 30 years, argues that, “with impairment of the ability to smell, the brain overcompensates by offering up odors, usually disagreeable ones. When this happens, certain neurons, which previously had blocked such odors, turn off.”