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Phantosmia – what is it?

Phantosmia is essentially a nasal hallucination; you smell something continually, usually something unpleasant, that isn’t there.

In my personal case, that ‘something’ is marine diesel exhaust. As in ‘I’m standing a few feet downwind of the exhaust of a WWII battleship that’s just started its engine for the first time since the Armistice’ smell of marine diesel exhaust.

Because it’s a fairly rare problem, there’s no real treatment for it that doesn’t sound as if it got imported from the Dark Ages. Additionally, because it’s fairly rare, and apparently varies pretty widely, the literature on it is less than consistent.

No one really seems to have a clue why phantosmia occurs. They’ve put together a lot of commonalities, some of which (brain tumour, or Parkinson’s, anyone?) are pretty scary, and others of which (allergies, stress, depression, sinusitis) are at least generally non-fatal if treated. It’s rare enough that when I went to my doctor and told him I was smelling diesel fumes all day every day, he laughed and welcomed me to the big city.

But it stinks!

Luckily for me, my phantosmia seems to be stress-triggered (I’m working under the assumption that several years later I’d probably have noticed a brain tumour…), and so when my stress levels get to the ‘get the f*** out of Dodge’ level, I get marine diesel exhaust.

Also luckily, for me, marine diesel exhaust is annoying but it’s also a smell I grew up with, so a few days to a few weeks of it isn’t pleasant but doesn’t have me planning to jump under a bus. Strong scents (peppermint, or sharp berries, for example) can cut through it, as can actually trying to sniff something.

I’m working the theory that I get marine diesel stench under stress because at some subconscious level, I associate the smell of a boat’s engine starting up with moving somewhere new and different. Marine diesel exhaust wafting across the yacht was the prelude to getting the anchor up and going for most of my childhood. To appropriate a Monty Python line, it’s a nasal ‘Run away, run away!’ reaction.

Solutions?

Well, there’s not a lot. I haven’t found that saline spray does anything for it, and I confess to no real desire to have my olfactory bulbs removed – generally I have a pretty good sense of smell, I use it, and when I’m not on public transit, I even enjoy it.

I’m working on reducing my stress levels. It’s a project. It’s not a project that’s going awfully well, but I am chipping away at it, in my copious free time.

Whether getting rid of some of the stress will equal getting rid of phantosmia, who knows. On the other hand, lowering stress levels is a good idea in general.

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