Does Smelling Cigarette Smoke Mean Cancer?

Some of my favorite smells in the world include brownies being baked in the oven, as well as the smell of pumpkin.

But smelling cigarette smoke definitely isn’t one of them. If you’re experiencing this smell on a regular basis, then it can definitely be a cause for concern.

According to the NIH (National Institute of Health), an estimated 2% of people in North America have admitted to having a smell disorder.

That’s quite a bit! Additionally, about one-quarter of these individuals were men between 60 and 70.

So if you smell smoke but there’s nobody smoking, you aren’t alone. Let’s take a look at what can cause this unusual symptom.

How Does our Sense of Smell Work?

First and foremost, let’s take a look at how our sense of smell works. This may be able to give you some clues as to why you’re smelling cigarette smoke.

Our noses contain olfactory sensory neurons which connect to our brain. Like any nerve in the body, they are susceptible to being damaged or hindered.

If you are smelling things that aren’t there, it’s possible that you’ve damaged your olfactory sensor neurons in some way. Here’s a simplified illustration of how the process works:

As a smell reaches the sensory neurons in our noses, it travels up through the brain where it gets interpreted.

At any point along this path, it’s possible for the neuron to be damaged, which could cause you to smell things that aren’t there (including smoke).

Bottom Line: Olfactory sensory neurons transmit impules to the brain. Here, the signal gets interpreted, resulting in a specific smell.

Causes of Smell Disorders

If you’re smelling pleasant (or unpleasant) odors that aren’t there, then the official term for this is dysosmia.

If you have a reduced ability to smell, it’s called hyposmia, and if you have completely lost your ability to smell, it’s called anosmia.

With dysosmia, you may smell something that simply isn’t there. Some of the main causes of this symptom include:

  • Dental problems
  • Nasal polyps
  • Sinus infections
  • Head trauma
  • Hormone imbalances
  • Malnutrition
  • Certain medications
  • Smoking
  • Aging
  • Neurological disorders/diseases

It’s interesting to know that approximately 50% of people with diabetes experience some kind of smell disorder.

Unfortunately, while diabetes isn’t curable, you can treat it and live a normal life as long as you make the right lifestyle changes and begin treatment immediately.

Bottom Line: About 1/2 of people diagnosed with diabetes experience a smell disorder. Aging, smoking, and medications can also be to blame.

How to Diagnose a Smell Disorder

As you can imagine, there’s no way to know for sure what’s causing you to smell smoke until you speak with a trained professional.

In some cases, alternation in smells happen gradually, while in others, it’s very sudden.

If you visit a primary care physician, they’ll most likely send you to an ENT (ears, nose, and throat specialist).

They will probably do a physical exam of your nose, ears, and throat and ultimately a CT scan.

After all is said and done, hopefully they’ll be able to give you more answers as to why you’re smelling cigarette smoke.

Bottom Line: To rule out something serious (like a brain tumor), your doctor may order a CT scan or MRI of your brain.

How to Treat Smell Disorders

In many cases, smell disorders go away on their own. But if they don’t, know that there are things you can do about it.

The first step is to figure out exactly what’s causing you to smell things that aren’t there.

If it’s from congested sinuses or allergies for example, then you can start with decongestants.

If it’s nasal polyps or any other type of strange growths, surgery will likely be required. The point is, don’t think that there’s nothing you can do.

Finally, stop smoking, drinking, and doing drugs. This could make your symptoms go away altogether.

If your phantom smells end up being the result of brain cancer (rare), then surgery, chemotherapy, or surgery might be in order.

Bottom Line: Nasal polyps can be removed via minimally invasive surgery. Quitting smoking, drinking, and drugs might also make the cigarette smell go away.

Give “Sniff Therapy” a Try

If you’re smelling cigarette smoke and it’s not going away, there might not be anything you can do about it.

If the nerve cell that runs from your nose to your brain is damaged, you might have to live with it.

This usually won’t be the case though, and it’s unlikely that there won’t be a way to treat the strange smells you’re experiencing.

In the meantime, here’s something you can try: it’s called “Sniff Therapy”. Basically, take four pleasant scents (it doesn’t matter which ones) and sniff them 4-6 times throughout the day.

Don’t choose something strong like onion. Instead, choose something pleasant like coffee or vanilla extract. This might be able to help alleviate your symptoms, although it’s not a guarantee.

Bottom Line: Practicing “sniff therapy” throughout the day could help alleviate your symptoms, although it’s not a guarantee.


The good news is, you’re probably fine. Is there a possibility that smelling cigarette smoke is a sign of a brain tumor or neurological disorder? Of course.

But just because something is a possibility, doesn’t mean that’s the reality. To calm your worries, it’s recommended that you speak with an ears, throat, and nose specialist as soon as possible.

After giving you a full workup, they’ll be able to tell you more about what’s happening.

Ask a Question: If you want to ask a medical doctor a question that hasn't been answered in one of our articles go to: Ask a Medical Doctor About your Symptoms

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  • I am 65 years of age, female, in good health, take a few medications for depression and cholesterol, other then that, I don’t have any other issues . I have been experiencing the cigarette smell even though I don’t smoke and there is no one and any smoking around me. Currently I am dealing with either allergies, sinusitus or a cold with hacking cough and no phlegms. I have not visited with my PCP yet on this issue. . Any kind of deep breathing to normal breathing causes me to cough as well as smelling cigarette odor. I have experienced this symptom throughout my life, that started in my pre-teens. I truly believe I am experiencing “dysosmia” and concerned since it seems to be more frequent and I feel my taste buds are also affected. I brought this to my doctor’s attention but she seemed to dismiss it, although, it was my first establishing visit with her. I am hoping to return or set up a visit with a specialist soon. I am glad to have found your website and feel that I am not imagining this. T

  • For me, I’m starting to suspect the cipro I took – would have never thought Fluoroquinolone antibiotics could cause any issues, but so many in the group have my same achilles tendon issues and are smelling faint smoke that is not there.

  • I have been diagnosed with dysosmia. The kind that I have is called parosmia. My sense of smell and taste is distorted. Sometimes smells are so overbearing that I have to wear a face mask to help neutralize the smell. Things that I use to enjoy I don’t anymore. Some things to me either taste or smell like chemicals or rotting/spoiled food. For the past three days now I am starting to smell cigarette smoke. It won’t go away. I swear someone is in the room that’s how strong the smell is. If you are experiencing these thing go see an ENT doctor.

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