Phantosmia


I looked up from my book and sniffed. Something smelled medicinal. Turning to my husband working behind me in the kitchen, I asked, “Are you doing something with medicine?”

Crushing pills, measuring out drops of Nervestra to stop the sciatic nerve pain,” he said. 

I shook my head. No, that wasn’t it. Nervestra smells like the daily vitamins my mother gave all of her children. We took the red coated pills obediently and faithfully until one of us asked, “I wonder what’s inside?”

Here’s a knife. Let’s cut one open,” my sister said. We cut open the pill and wrinkled our noses, at the smell emanating from the yellow-brown substance. “Ewww! It smells like ca-nure!” As farm kids, ca-nure was our code for cow manure.

That ended the daily vitamin ritual for both of us. That smell so seared our brains that even as new mothers we both struggled to remember to give our own children drops from the brown bottle filled with those disgusting yellow drops of health. My sister taped a large sign “Vitamins!” to her son’s high chair to remind her to add them to his cereal and still forgot.

So I knew the smell of Nervestra did not match the medicinal whiff akin to rubbing alcohol that filled my nostrils. I sniffed again.

Definitely medicinal but not the smell of medicine that I associated with old Doctor McDonald’s who treated me as a child. Dr. McDonald held office hours in the parlor and office of his home in the village of Woodhull, N.Y. The waiting room smelled of tobacco and rubbing alcohol. Tobacco because McDonald took cigarette breaks between patients.

No, I detected a modern medicinal smell. Not finding the source, I gave up and went to bed. Next morning, with my husband sound asleep in the bedroom, I again sat on the couch and the smell returned. Curious, I reached for the source of all knowledge: the Internet. I googled, “smelling something that is not there” and learned a new word: Phantosmia: a phantom smell. Or cacosmia if it smells really disgusting. I posted my new word on Facebook. Friends replied with their personal experiences with phantosmia.

It can be linked to autoimmune disorders like fibromyalgia or lupus.” a local woman wrote speaking from personal experience.

One elderly woman suffered from OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and already was the cleanest person ever when she began smelling an intolerable stench. “She was getting up twice nightly to wash and dry bed sheets. We printed all the information about phantosmia for her, but she never believed. She actually smelled like beautiful flowers, but could not be convinced. It also did not help that her regular doctor was less than sympathetic or informative.” her daughter-in-law said.

Before one woman realized the smell originated from a sinus infection, she made her husband “tear out a bathroom wall because I could smell something rotten. Bless his sweet heart. Now, I have a wonderful immunologist, allergist who treats me for this. I am so glad I found a good doctor and found my problem. Before that I cleaned, sprayed and threw away. It takes a good specialist to keep you out of the nut house with this,” she concluded.

Thank goodness my experience with phantosmia came and went in a 24 hour period and did not send me into a cleaning frenzy. For all my friends who suffered longer and more miserably with cacosmia, please accept my sympathy. I enjoyed learning a new word, but I would not care to share the experiences you have described beyond that passing medicinal smell.

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