Almost every time I catch a cold that lasts for more that a few days I get phantom smells that last for a week or more. This has been a pattern for at least the last 15 years. The phantom smell is usually something chemical like menthol or iso-propyl alcohol but is actually completely unidentifiable.
Has anyone ever heard of this happening this way?
Yes, this phenomenon has been well documented, although the physiologic mechanism of it has not been worked out. It is referred to in the medical literature as phantosmia.
What you describe, the experience of abnormal smells or odors is common but not well understood and the odor of sulfur or rotten eggs is one of the more common of these. These sensations are believed to most often originate in the central nervous system, rather than in the nose or other structures. However recent studies suggest that in some instances, the odor may originate from diseased nerve endings in the nose or the nerves that run from it, to the brain. They often begin with an upper respiratory infection, head trauma or with aging. The phenomenon is more likely to occur in women and is then often associated with a decreased sense of smell.
The experience of these may last for varying periods of time from days to years, but in many cases resolve spontaneously. Some people are reported to be able to halt the onset of these odors by tickling the inside of their noses with a soft item.
There are reports of reductions or complete clearing of the odors in people given anti-psychotic medicines that increase the level of a chemical found in the brain, called GABA, but these medicines have many side effects and are generally not recommended. Research looking for a cure is still being conducted.
Finally, this abnormal perception of odors not present in one’s environment may also occur with the aura of some seizures or with migraine headaches.
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