I smell smoking people.
March 12, 2012 2:32 PM   Subscribe

I believe I am having olfactory hallucinations. My husband thinks I am crazy.

For about two years I have been smelling cigarette smoke or wood smoke on and off. Recently it has become very frequent. A while back I mentioned this to my husband who said the guy across the street smoked, so I just figured I was smelling his smoke or someone's persistent barbeque. But I smell it everywhere. I realized it was "phantom smoke" when I went to a meeting in a far off city in a no smoking building on a no smoking campus. I smelt smoke the entire time, even when I was not in the building or on the campus.

My husband thinks I am nuts, since he does not smell smoke. I do ask him if he smells smoke when it happens, so I know if there really is smoke.

I have a doctor's appointment. I think it is due to some sinus problems. Has anyone else experienced this or do you know of anyone who has had this problem? Were you able to get rid of it? What was the outcome? It kind of drives me a bit nuts.
posted by fifilaru to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have this occasionally too and mine goes away before I finally realize it. I have found that since I started doing saline rinses, it has not come back but that has only been about six months. I have not been able to come up with a correlation between sinus infection or cold or anything else either, so I'm also interested in others' answers.
posted by thorny at 2:40 PM on March 12, 2012

You don't say what age you are, my mother was bothered by smells (which I never noticed) when I was a kid. I believe it is one of the things that can happen during, or leading up to, the menopause
posted by epo at 2:47 PM on March 12, 2012

Are there any triggers for it? There might be something non-obvious which predicts the smell.

Also, especially if you smell it around jackets or clothes, there are crazy motherfuckers who go camping or make barbecues around this time of year and these kinds of smells can take days or weeks to fully go away. They might be real.
posted by Blasdelb at 2:49 PM on March 12, 2012

Not to worry you, but I've known two people who had this particular issue (smelling smoke/something burning when there was no smoke) and they both turned out to have some form of epilepsy where the seizures weren't apparent. Your doctor may order scans to rule this out.
posted by erst at 2:52 PM on March 12, 2012 [5 favorites]

Addendum: They were both told by their doctors that smelling smoke or burning was a common symptom, so that's not just a random connection I made or anything.
posted by erst at 2:54 PM on March 12, 2012

Also, phantom smells can be a symptom of a brain tumor, so you may want to ask about that-- although it's unlikely of course, knock on wood.
posted by devymetal at 2:55 PM on March 12, 2012

Thanks for the responses. I am 54. I live in a tropical area, so no one has fireplaces. They do have barbeque pits, but it has been raining so much, I doubt anyone is using them.
posted by fifilaru at 2:59 PM on March 12, 2012

I have heard someone mention smelling smoke is their first symptom of a migraine coming on.
posted by molasses at 3:09 PM on March 12, 2012

I've definitely heard of epilepsy olfactory auras as well (shadowed a neurologist for a semester), but from what I've heard, the odors are more... nonsensical? They're not obviously something specific like cigarette or barbecue smoke; they're more like a tire fire or burning garbage-- a cacophony of odors. Not sure if the same holds true of olf hallucinations in migraine auras and brain tumors, though. Can't hurt to see a doctor.

Not to worry you (because this is very unlikely), but there are olfactory disturbances in schizophrenia (my old lab studied them in great detail, and I was a coauthor on a paper looking at a physiological correlate of scz in olfactory cortex). You shouldn't worry because you're past the normal age of a first episode, for what that's worth.

People burn stuff no matter where you are, and you might just have a sensitive nose. I'm guessing you've checked to see whether there's any deforestation by fire nearby?
posted by supercres at 3:22 PM on March 12, 2012

This really is an issue you should take up with your doctor. Not OMG ER NOW! But a routine appointment should be in your near future to rule out anything dangerous.
posted by kamikazegopher at 3:26 PM on March 12, 2012

On the fairly benign end of things, I've heard of things like this occurring with migraines (and you can have a migraine without your head hurting, per se) and chronic sinus infections. On the not-so-benign end, I've heard that issues like this can accompany strokes (although the fact that this has been ongoing tends to point to that being less likely).
posted by limeonaire at 4:10 PM on March 12, 2012

See a doctor. This could be any number of things, from the neurological issues other people have mentioned to physiological issues an ENT can address.
posted by Sidhedevil at 5:53 PM on March 12, 2012

Phantom smells, clonus, attacks of dizziness (reminiscent of being on a rollercoaster, perhaps), and hypnic jerks are all associated with seizure disorder.

And seizure disorder is often hereditary, and is associated with cessation of breathing in some cases.
posted by jamjam at 6:35 PM on March 12, 2012

This is definitely something to see a doctor about. It could be so many things!

Personally, I once had a transient smell of smoke turn out to be from a low-level sinus infection. And after I quit smoking, for about three months or so, periodically a smell like match heads would percolate out... from my gums, my lungs, my sinuses, I don't know, but I would be smelling it for several hours before it finally went away.

You might also try asking people other than your husband. (If you haven't already... your question makes it look like you have only asked him about it.)

Just a casual "Do you smell smoke? That's odd, I thought I smelled something," and then change the subject if they say no. Some people just don't have very good powers of smelling, and your husband could be one of them.

And finally, the most obvious: when was the last time you had laundered all of the clothes you were wearing? It's possible for clothes to pick up oddball smells, and release them at the strangest times.
posted by ErikaB at 8:04 PM on March 12, 2012

This question together with this previous one strongly recommend a visit to a neurologist.
posted by parudox at 8:48 PM on March 12, 2012

Thanks for the answers. I am actually smelling smoke right now :( I agree that the other questions I have asked do lead to something that should be checked out. But I have asked my doctor about the other oddities I have experienced. I changed doctors, so maybe the new one will figure this out!
posted by fifilaru at 9:29 PM on March 12, 2012

I wouldn't expect a family doctor to necessarily figure it out, so I would ask them specifically for a referral to a neurologist.
posted by parudox at 5:43 AM on March 13, 2012

Do you by chance use medicated face or body wash, or acne medication, that is sulphr based? I once used an acne treatment that had sulphr as an ingredient, and I remember thinking that it smelled like smoke.
posted by FergieBelle at 1:49 PM on March 13, 2012

i experience this, along with smelling something metallic, kind of like my nose is full of pennies. i'm in the middle of figuring it out, but my doc thinks it is likely a migraine aura (i also have crippling headaches). i have heard of painless migraines with aura, so that might be a possibility? i agree that your best bet is a trip to the neurologist...
posted by unlucky.lisp at 4:37 PM on March 13, 2012

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