My Nose Smells Weird When I Rub It
Have you ever noticed that your nose seemed to be smelling something even though there was nothing actually there? Or maybe the smell made you want to cover your hand with a napkin because it smelled so awful. This is called phantom odor syndrome and it’s pretty common among humans. In fact, most animals experience this phenomenon too. But what causes it?
The human olfactory sense (smell) is one of our five senses. The other four are taste, touch, sight and hearing. Our noses detect odors from molecules floating in the air around us. Each molecule has an individual molecular structure, which determines how it reacts with our olfactory receptors. Molecules containing oxygen atoms have two reactive sites — they either bond to the receptor directly or through a bridge group. Those without oxygen atoms only have one reactive site. There are more than 1 million different types of olfactory receptors distributed across our nasal cavity. If we were to take a closer look at those receptors, each would resemble small gateways into a chemical factory.
When a molecule enters the receptor, its shape opens up the gates. A series of protein chains then bind together to form the gatekeeper. These proteins are also known as G-proteins. Once activated by the foreign molecule, the G-protein lets ions flow freely between layers of cells within the olfactory sensory neurons. The free electrons cause these electrically charged particles to move along the neuron toward the central nervous system where the information is processed. This process allows for the perception of smell.
One major problem with our olfactory sense is that our brains aren’t always accurate when detecting odors. Oftentimes, we perceive things that don’t exist. Phantom smells occur when our minds mistake random molecules for real ones. Phantom smells can happen if we’re exposed to certain environmental chemicals or ingest certain substances. It can also occur due to a compromised immune system or neurological disorders like Alzheimer’s disease. Some scientists believe that phantom smells can also arise during times of stress or fatigue.
Mostly harmless, phantom smells can sometimes become quite bothersome. They can make you feel sick, lightheaded or otherwise uncomfortable. As many as 40 percent of Americans suffer from phantom smells That’s why doctors usually recommend treating them right away instead of ignoring them. Let’s explore a few conditions that cause phantom smells and find out what you should do about it.
Phantom Smells Caused By Head Trauma
A blow to the head can damage nerves, blood vessels and tissue throughout the body. One type of nerve cell that receives a lot of attention during head trauma is called the olfactory receptor cell. These tiny structures are located near the nostrils and allow for detection of volatile organic compounds. When someone suffers a severe head wound, their injured olfactory receptors might not function properly. This could lead to phantom smells caused by broken or damaged olfactory receptors.
Olfactory receptors are also sensitive to physical pressure. When we breathe against closed lips or gums, we can compress our olfactory receptors. This could result in phantom smells if enough force is applied over time. People who wear contact lenses often complain of phantom smells. The lens material itself can irritate the ocular mucosa (the lining inside the eye). Contact lenses are meant to enhance vision but rubbing against the eyes can also compromise the integrity of the olfactory receptors.
People who engage in vigorous exercise may notice a change in their ability to smell. Sweaty environments are notorious for triggering phantom scents. When sweat mixes with moisture, it can react chemically to create phantom smells. Soap, deodorants, perfumes and antiperspirants all contribute to this effect. Exercise makes the skin release toxins. Exercising outdoors will help reduce the amount of smelly perspiration.
Some athletes use aromatic solutions to mask offensive smells while running or exercising. Sports drinks contain sugar and citric acid. When combined, the acids produce carbon dioxide gas. Carbonation creates bubbles that rise up through water. These bubbles expand and trap the odor molecules deep within the liquid. Other sports beverages include fragrances, sugars and salts. Fragrances can give off subtle aromas. However, some fragrances are known to cause headaches or dizziness. If you experience any discomfort, try switching brands until you find one that works well for you.
Smelling bad breath doesn’t necessarily mean you have halitosis. You’ve probably experienced phantom smells before when eating food that tasted great. Your tongue detects the aroma but your nasal passages say otherwise. Halitosis occurs when bacteria grows in the mouth. To prevent halitosis, brush your teeth thoroughly and floss regularly. Don’t smoke, avoid alcohol consumption, eat lots of fiber, limit sugary snacks, rinse your mouth with water after meals and consider taking probiotics. Bacteria build up in the throat and digestive tract. Probiotic supplements can restore your gut health.
Smelling weird isn’t just a symptom of poor hygiene. Phantom smells can occur in response to specific medical conditions. We’ll discuss several below.
Phantom Smells Caused By Respiratory Infection
Respiratory infections can wreak havoc on your olfactory sensors. Nasal congestion, irritation, fever and general discomfort can impair your ability to smell. After suffering a cold or flu, you may find yourself experiencing phantom smells. Scientists haven’t determined exactly why this happens; however, researchers suspect that inflammation affects the olfactory receptors. Viruses can infect the upper respiratory tract and spread to the lower respiratory tract via cilia. This inflammation interferes with the normal functioning of olfactory receptors.
Chronic sinusitis is another condition that triggers phantom smells. Sinuses get clogged with mucous and debris. Chronic sinusitis results when the sinuses don’t drain properly. The buildup leads to recurrent infections. Inflammation and swelling from repeated infections affect olfactory receptors. When the sinuses fill back up with fluid, the olfactory receptors stop working altogether.
Researchers recently discovered that patients with chronic bronchitis experience phantom smells. Bronchial tubes transport air from the trachea to the lungs. The lungs require oxygen to convert carbon dioxide into usable energy. During periods of obstruction, the lungs cannot receive adequate amounts of oxygen. Without proper ventilation, the lungs begin to burn. Inflammation and edema (swelling) affect the bronchial tubes. The resulting blockage decreases airflow. This contributes to lung impairment. The same thing goes for cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy. Chemotherapy drugs kill both healthy and malignant tissues. Because cancer cells rely heavily on oxygen, destroying them leaves surrounding cells vulnerable to hypoxia (oxygen deficiency). This makes the tumor grow back bigger.
Smelling weird can also occur in people who undergo surgery. Surgery disrupts bodily functions. Patients need to fast prior to surgery. Blood loss, anesthesia effects and pain all contribute to postoperative complications. Allergic reactions can also occur in surgical patients. Anaphylaxis is a potentially life threatening allergic reaction. Doctors must treat it immediately. Postoperative care includes monitoring vital signs, keeping the patient dry and avoiding foods high in carbohydrates. Surgeries involving the nasal region tend to go smoothly. However, there are instances when surgeons accidentally cut important nerves. This can lead to phantom smells.
Smelling Bad Breath Doesn’t Always Mean You Have Halitosis
Breath reeks of sulfuric gases when you have halitosis. When the tongue releases hydrogen sulfide, it forms foul-smelling sulfuric compounds. Most people describe halitosis as “rotten eggs.” This unpleasant smell comes from the combination of methanethiol, methyl mercaptan and dimethyl disulfide. The primary culprit behind halitosis is plaque formation. Plaque is a film that develops on the surface of the tongue. It contains bacteria, dead cells and mucus. While saliva helps wash away bacteria, it won’t remove hardened mucus. Mucus traps bacteria because it provides a moist environment. When bacteria feed on food particles, they produce waste products that mix with the moisture. Eventually, bacteria die and leave behind a sticky substance. Hardened mucus prevents bacteria from breaking down the plaque.
Halitosis can also occur in people with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD involves stomach contents moving upward into the esophagus. Food travels past the pyloric sphincter and into the duodenum. Digestive enzymes break down complex carbohydrates and fats. Acid reflux occurs when gastric juices travel backward into the esophagus. This causes heartburn and indigestion. Refluxed fluids mix with swallowed air. This produces the telltale rotten egg smell.
Another reason people refer to halitosis as “bad” breath is because they associate it with oral malodor. Oral malodor refers to halitosis that develops within the mouth. When bacteria multiply, they release sulfuric gases. Bacterial decay increases once the mouth becomes warm and wet. Persistent gum diseases can worsen oral malodor. Periodontal disease destroys bone and tooth enamel. Poor dental hygiene exposes the soft tissue to bacterial degradation. Tissue breakdown produces volatile sulfuric compounds.
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