I smell dead people.
June 7, 2008 10:32 PM   Subscribe

I smell dead people. No one else can smell them. It happens at random and lasts for a day a two and then goes away. Am I crazy are have some of you experienced this too?

OK, it's not really dead people, but dear lord it's that bad.

It's been happening for the last 6 months or so. Every few weeks I will get a whiff of this scent and it sticks with me for a couple of days. I can smell other things, but this is the dominant smell. It smells like a mixture of burnt lavender, ground cloves, dry/hot urine, old vinegar, smoke, menthol, slightly rotten oranges, and rancid meat.

It will suddenly come on no matter where I am -- home, theatre, work, the park, in the car, wherever -- and usually lasts 24-48 hours. It's highly distracting in general and I have a hard time eating while I have the smell stuck in my nose. I tried covering it up, but nothing helps. It’s an earworm for the nose! A noseworm, yeah, that's what it is.

I thought maybe it was the detergent I used, 7th Generation Free & Clear and so I washed my clothing in mixture of baking soda, washing soda, and vinegar. At the same time, I switched from my normal Aveda hair and face products to simple, clear, hypo allergenic, non-smelling products. No dice! I still get this dead-people smell that lingers.

I’m not stupidly asking for medical advice from ya’ll, basically just wondering if you’ve experienced it or heard of someone who has. I’m not sure where to even start looking.

If it helps:
Late 30's, female, perfectly good health and I haven't had a cold or flu in at least a year.
posted by trixare4kids to Health & Fitness (25 answers total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
Lots of things this could be: polyps, lupus, tumor. I've had friends with all three of these conditions who had perturbed smell/taste. Get to a doctor now. Even a brain tumor is better treated sooner rather than later.
posted by OlderThanTOS at 10:49 PM on June 7, 2008

There was a Radiolab episode that dealt with something similar to this, I think. A British woman with a similar problem, though more debilitating sounding. Not to freak you out, but it was a neurologically-based disorder where the sufferer just smelled rank things that weren't there. I think Oliver "Awakenings" Sacks was somehow involved. In her case I believe she'd been having epileptic seizures and it was a side effect. Might have been this episode, though it's not mentioned in the description.
posted by mumkin at 11:02 PM on June 7, 2008

Best answer: Phantosmia. See a doctor.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 11:09 PM on June 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Just to be clear: you're smelling this in your environment, or you're perceiving yourself to smell of this?
posted by DarlingBri at 11:10 PM on June 7, 2008

It appears not to have been that episode. And yes, please, consult your GP soon.
posted by mumkin at 11:17 PM on June 7, 2008

I have that/get that sometimes when I am about to get a bad headache or have a bad headache. I've heard that olfactory hallucinations are common precursors to migraines. (My bad headaches are probably migraines, but since that term is overused and I am undiagnoised, I'd rather just say its a headache). Do you get headaches when you notice this phantom smell? Agreeing with seeing a doctor, but it might not be a major problem. In my case, the headaches are caused largely by allergies.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 11:25 PM on June 7, 2008

Smells that don't exist are one sign of a tumour. Sure, there are a bunch of other, very benign explanations, too, but I'd get it checked up if it were me.
posted by rodgerd at 12:57 AM on June 8, 2008

Best answer: More on Phantosmia which has a description remarkably similar to yours:

Among the unpleasant scents often reported by those suffering from parosmia or phantosmia are the smells of death (rotting flesh), feces, vomit, garbage, and smoke.

This is really a situation in which you should see a doctor to get it checked out.
posted by triggerfinger at 2:48 AM on June 8, 2008

Phantom smells can be a result of all sorts of things -- none of which are pleasant or good. You should see a doctor as soon as possible because you could be experience a symptom of a huge number of Really Bad Things.
posted by Gular at 3:27 AM on June 8, 2008

you might also visit an ENT and make sure you don't have something nasty caught behind your tonsils or something.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:32 AM on June 8, 2008

nth-ing the call that this could be an olfactory hallucination.
posted by availablelight at 6:03 AM on June 8, 2008

I volunteered in a palliative care ward for a while and after doing that I started to smell "palliative care ward" in lots of places.

I struck it up to associating that smell with the palliative care ward more than actually smelling that smell more than I had before. Now that the smell had a strong association it was picked out of the smell medley that we always experience and highlighted.

So, since you say that it smells like dead people it could be that you have a smell associated with dead people (which is probably a strong association) and now your brain is picking that smell out.

but I am probably wrong. It was just the explanation I came up with for my experiences.
posted by ouchitburns at 7:22 AM on June 8, 2008

posted by The corpse in the library at 8:07 AM on June 8, 2008

I have this, but I smell cigarette smoke. I've had it ever since I was treated for thyroid cancer. I used to get it most of the day, every day, but over the course of a couple of years it has diminished to only brief episodes every few months. It used to drive me absolutely crazy. I hate cigarette smoke, and I would smell it in bed, at work, in the woods--I couldn't escape. I was constantly asking people, "Do you smell cigarette smoke!?" I would go out and walk around the outside of my office building trying to see if someone was smoking out there and if it was somehow getting sucked into the building. I must have seemed insane.

I went to a neurologist about it and yes, they wanted to do a CT scan because they thought it might be a form of epilepsy and also there was the very slight chance of a brain tumor, but at that point I had had my fill of doctors and tests and decided to just wait and see. A totally irrational response, but it worked out.
posted by HotToddy at 10:46 AM on June 8, 2008

Up until very recently I had this. In my case it was the smell of electrical burning. I thought my laptop was continually overheating, until I started to smell it when my laptop was off too.

I finally went to the docs and got checked out, after self-diagnosing over the Internet (mistake). I was convinced it was the start of epilepsy, as I have a family history. Fortunately, my doctor isn't as brain-dead as me, and ordered a full set of blood tests. When they came back, my blood sugar was sky high, and I was told in no uncertain terms that I have Type 2 diabetes.


That was two months ago. Since then, I've cut my sugar intake drastically, I now exercise much more, and am feeling 100% healthier than I did. And guess what? No more electrical burning smell.

My doc can't explain it either...
posted by Ridge at 10:55 AM on June 8, 2008

It may be a while before you find out anything definitive, but when you find out what it is, will you post back here to let us know? This is a very interesting medical mystery!
posted by limeonaire at 11:16 AM on June 8, 2008

Response by poster: Phantosmia! The description does sound like exactly what's been going on with me.

Making a doctor's appointment first thing Monday morning. Thanks, guys.
posted by trixare4kids at 11:41 AM on June 8, 2008

Response by poster: Hey, Limeonaire -- yes, I'll post my findings once I know something.
posted by trixare4kids at 11:43 AM on June 8, 2008

Years ago an ex-boss described having a persistent "dead mouse" smell as a result of an atypical and otherwise asymptomatic sinus infection.
posted by nanojath at 11:51 AM on June 8, 2008

New neighbors?
posted by gjc at 3:27 PM on June 8, 2008

I have a friend who gets this after, um, party weekends with insufflated drugs. It goes away, though.
posted by herbaliser at 2:35 PM on June 9, 2008

Response by poster:
DarlingBri - to be clear, I'm the only one who smells it.

gjc - it's not the neighbors. Happens no matter where I am.

herbaliser - Ha! Interesting thought, but that's not the problem. Though I used dabble in this 'n that when I wore a younger person's clothes -- I have long ago passed that phase. Furthermore, I have never, ever, not even one time put anything up my nose -- I have some kind of weird block about it -- can't even do over the counter nasal spray, let alone drugs.

Anyway, Dr. appointment in the works. At least this horrible smell is good for the waistline.
posted by trixare4kids at 4:05 PM on June 9, 2008

Response by poster:
Update: I know why I smell dead people.

After having a CT scan of the area, a nasal endoscopy and cultures taken, I have been diagnosed with chronic sinusitis.

Interesting that other than smelling dead people and very slight stuffiness in the morning, I've had no other symptoms.

My ENT doc wants me to try nasal irrigation, but that's a major challenge for me and I don't think I can actually do it. I have a HUGE block about putting things up my nose. I can't even do a squirt of saline or whatever. You want me to do what!?

He's also giving me antibiotics so hopefully that will do the trick by itself.

Thanks for all the input.
posted by trixare4kids at 8:24 AM on June 13, 2008

Hey, awesome news! I mean, of all the things that it could have been, you came up lucky. It's not a tumor!

Pity you're not feeling the love for nasal irrigation, because it looks so cool. Though personally the thought of it freaks me out a bit too. Seems dangerously close to self-inflicted waterboarding.
posted by mumkin at 7:25 PM on June 14, 2008

Hey - good to hear! I bet it's a real relief to finally know.

Regarding nasal irrigation - don't write it off so quickly. I was the exact same way as you about actually squirting water in my nose. I shuddered just to think about it. But about a month ago I had a horrific head cold and I was due to go on vacation in a few days. I was willing to try anything to feel better so that I wouldn't have to lie in bed for my whole vacation so I tried nasal irrigation, hoping to clear my sinuses up quicker. I didn't buy a neti pot but got this at my local pharmacy. The bottle looked a bit easier to use for a beginner and the kit came with pre-filled saline satchets so that I couldn't mess up the exact formula and get the painful burining sensation I've heard about (which is only a result of using too little salt btw).

I was really surprised! I was terrified when I started but it ended up being really easy. It was very natural the way it flowed through my nose and I didn't feel like I was drowning at all. You have to make sure you close your throat so that water doesn't go down the back of it, and at one point that did happen to me but it wasn't that big a deal. I actually got the hang of the whole thing pretty quickly.

So yeah, give it a try. Hopefully you'll find it's not as bad as you thought and while I am not at the point yet of doing it regularly, for people who do, I've heard that the results are nothing short of miraculous. Good luck!
posted by triggerfinger at 11:19 AM on June 16, 2008

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