Can Anxiety Cause Phantom Smells?

Medically Reviewed on 10/26/2022
Can Anxiety Cause Phantom Smells
Phantom smells are a common symptom of anxiety disorders

Anxiety can cause a wide variety of symptoms, including phantom smells (phantosmia or olfactory hallucinations). Many people with anxiety report smelling odd smells that other people do not smell.

Other neurological and mental health conditions may cause phantom smells, including depression, migraine, brain injury, schizophrenia, and epileptic seizures.

How does anxiety cause phantom smells?

Several theories have been proposed as to why anxiety disorders may cause phantom smells.

Your sense of smell is perceived through the coordinated participation of various structures that make up the olfactory system, such as the nose and nasal cavity which are lined with various smell receptors. Nerve fibers from these receptors carry sensations to the brain. Odors are interpreted in the olfactory area of the brain. 

Researchers suggest that a “miswiring” of the brain causes phantom smells in people with anxiety. Phantosmia may occur due to problems in the nose or olfactory receptors. In such cases, the smell may often be perceived through one nostril rather than both. They may be quite persistent as well, experienced day and night.

Anxiety and chronic stress cause various biochemical changes in the body that may give rise to phantom smells. The stress response may cause hyper-stimulation of the smell and taste receptors that may lead to odd tastes and smells. This is an evolutionary response to enable the person to perceive a potential threat more effectively.

Decreased salivation promotes the growth of bacteria and yeast in the mouth and throat, which can cause abnormal or phantom smells that are not being perceived by others. Bacterial or fungal overgrowth can be explained by reduced immunity in response to chronic stress and anxiety.

Many medications used to treat anxiety and depression can cause abnormal tastes and smells, including phantom smells, as side effects. This may occur during treatment or when medications are reduced or withdrawn.

How to treat phantom smells caused by anxiety

Treating phantom smells mainly involves treating the underlying anxiety. Seek medical advice to determine whether other causes, such as nasal or oral infections, are contributing to phantom smells.

Anxiety can be managed with the help of a qualified psychiatrist who can help you with counseling or psychotherapy and provide medications when needed. If you are already on any medications, your doctor can tell you whether they are the cause of your symptoms and suggest alternatives as needed. They may also suggest lifestyle changes to control anxiety and stress, including:

Stress-relieving practices, such as breathing exercises, yoga, and meditation

  • Regular and adequate sleep
  • A healthy diet rich in whole foods
  • Adequate hydration
  • Regular exercise

For some people, saline nasal rinses may help get rid of phantom smells. If nasal or oral infections are present, they should be treated accordingly. Some people may require numbing medicines or steroid nasal sprays. 

In rare cases, surgery may be needed if phantom smells are associated with other issues, such as nasal polyps or enlarged adenoids.


A Visual Guide to Generalized Anxiety Disorder See Slideshow
Medically Reviewed on 10/26/2022
Image Source: iStock image

When the Sense of Smell Meets Emotion: Anxiety-State-Dependent Olfactory Processing and Neural Circuitry Adaptation.

Do You Smell What I Smell? Phantom Odors Are Real.

Phantosmia: What causes olfactory hallucinations?