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).
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
- Certain medications
- 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.