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Beyond the Burnt Toast : Decoding Phantom Smells and Health Concerns

Introduction to Phantosmia

Phantosmia is a fascinating, but perplexing, neurological condition that is characterized by the perception of nonexistent odors or smells. This is what happens when certain people smell burnt toast or other similar odors that are not really there. Individuals experiencing phantosmia may detect a wide range of scents, often peculiar and unpleasant, such as burnt toast, rotten eggs, or chemical fumes, despite no actual source of the odor being present in their surroundings. This olfactory hallucination can be distressing and disruptive to a person’s daily life, affecting their sense of taste and appetite, and causing emotional distress.(1,2)

Phantosmia can arise from various underlying factors, including sinus infections, head injuries, neurological disorders, or even as a side effect of certain medications. Understanding the nature and potential causes of phantosmia is crucial for accurate diagnosis and appropriate management of this intriguing olfactory disorder. But does smelling certain odors mean that it is a medical emergency? Let’s take a look.

Is Smelling Burnt Toast a Medical Emergency?

Yes, smelling something burning, such as burnt toast or other odors, can indeed be a sign of a medical condition. One medical condition associated with this phenomenon is phantosmia, as discussed above. Phantosmia can be caused by several factors, including sinus infections, head injuries, brain tumors, epilepsy, and certain neurological conditions. Additionally, it can also be a side effect of certain medications. In some cases, phantosmia may be a temporary and harmless occurrence, while in others, it can be a symptom of an underlying medical issue that requires attention and treatment.

Experiencing phantom smells, such as the perception of burning toast or other scents that are not present, remains a mysterious phenomenon, with researchers yet to fully understand its underlying mechanisms. Current studies propose that such olfactory hallucinations can arise from issues within the nose or the brain. Approximately 52 to 72 percent of cases can be attributed to problems originating in the nose, involving the olfactory nerves or the olfactory bulb situated just above the nose.(3,4) While phantom smells can be innocuous in some instances, they can also be indicative of various medical conditions, including potentially serious ones.

If someone experiences persistent or unexplained episodes of smelling burning smells or other unusual odors, it is essential to seek medical help.

Smelling Phantom Odors: Understanding the Potential Causes and Significance

The sensation of smelling burnt toast, or other phantom smells, can be perplexing and may raise concerns about potential underlying medical conditions. While the exact reasons behind phantosmia remain elusive, researchers have identified various factors that can lead to this olfactory illusion.

  1. Sinus Infections

Chronic sinus infections can disrupt the olfactory system, leading to prolonged phantosmia. Even a single sinus infection can temporarily damage the olfactory nerves or the olfactory bulb, causing individuals to perceive non-existent smells like burnt toast.(2)

  1. Migraines and Olfactory Hallucinations

Phantom smells are an uncommon type of migraine aura, which are sensory disturbances that occur just before or during a migraine attack. These olfactory hallucinations, lasting between 5 minutes to an hour, can manifest as the perception of burnt or unusual odors.(5)

  1. Allergies and Olfactory Disturbances

Congestion resulting from allergies can also damage the olfactory system temporarily, leading to the perception of phantom smells. Relieving congestion with antihistamines can often improve the issue.(6)

  1. Nasal Polyps and Impaired Sense of Smell

Nasal polyps, benign growths inside the nose caused by chronic inflammation, can obstruct the olfactory system and lead to issues with the sense of smell, contributing to phantosmia.(7)

  1. Exposure to Neurotoxins

Long-term exposure to neurotoxic substances, such as certain metals like lead, nickel, or mercury, can alter the sense of smell and cause individuals to perceive odors like burnt toast. The link with other chemicals, such as chemical solvents, is less clear but may also be a potential cause of phantosmia.(8)

Is Smelling Burnt Toast an Indication of Stroke?

Smelling burnt toast is not considered a sign of a stroke, as there is no evidence suggesting a direct link between phantosmia and stroke occurrences. However, being informed about the warning signs of a stroke is crucial to enable quick action and enhance the chances of a full recovery.(9)

The association between smelling odors and strokes lacks scientific substantiation. Therefore, if someone experiences phantom smells alone, it is unlikely to be a stroke symptom.

Despite the absence of a direct link to phantosmia, it remains essential to be vigilant about stroke symptoms. Strokes can occur suddenly and require immediate attention. Employing the “FAST” test can help identify potential stroke signs in oneself or others:

  • Face: Ask the person to smile and look for any drooping on one side of their face.
  • Arms: Request the person to raise both arms and observe if one arm drifts downward.
  • Speech: Ask the person to repeat a simple phrase without slurring words, such as “The early bird catches the worm.”
  • Time: Waste no time in responding. If any of these symptoms are observed in yourself or someone else, call local emergency services immediately.

It is important to understand that smelling burnt toast is not an indicator of a stroke. However, understanding the warning signs of a stroke is also vital to ensure rapid action in the event of an emergency. Prompt response to stroke symptoms can significantly improve the chances of a successful recovery and reduce potential long-term effects. Being well-informed empowers individuals to act swiftly when it matters most.

Treatment for Smelling Burnt Toast

The treatment for smelling burnt toast or other phantom smells depends on the underlying cause. If the issue is due to an infection, it may resolve on its own over time, but antibiotics may be prescribed if necessary.

When the phantom smell is associated with an underlying neurological condition, your doctor will work with you to identify and implement the most appropriate treatment options available for managing the condition effectively.

In addition to medical treatments, there are some home remedies that may help reduce the intensity of the phantom smell:

  • Rinsing with Saline Solution: Nasal rinses using a saline solution can help alleviate congestion and potential irritants, which may contribute to the phantom smell.
  • Using Decongestants: Over-the-counter decongestants can help reduce nasal congestion and swelling, potentially providing some relief from the olfactory disturbance.
  • Anesthetic Nasal Spray: An anesthetic spray can numb the nerve cells in the nose, which may temporarily alleviate the perception of the phantom smell.

It is important to remember that home remedies may offer temporary relief but might not address the underlying cause. Therefore, seeking medical advice is essential to properly diagnose and manage any potential health issues related to the perception of smelling burnt toast.


If you experience the sensation of smelling burnt toast or other phantom smells without any apparent source, it is essential to consult a doctor promptly. Seeking medical attention will help rule out potentially serious underlying conditions. It is especially crucial to see a doctor as soon as possible if you exhibit specific signs, such as a recent head injury, a history of seizures or experiencing a seizure, unexplained weight loss, memory issues, fatigue, tremors, or gait problems. Additionally, if the phantom smell interferes with your daily life, seeking medical evaluation can help identify the cause and find appropriate management strategies.


  1. Saltagi, M.Z., Rabbani, C.C., Ting, J.Y. and Higgins, T.S., 2018, July. Management of long‐lasting phantosmia: a systematic review. In International forum of allergy & rhinology (Vol. 8, No. 7, pp. 790-796).
  2. Gillette, B., Reid, J.A. and Shermetaro, C., 2022. Phantosmia.
  3. Malaty, J. and Malaty, I.A., 2013. Smell and taste disorders in primary care. American family physician, 88(12), pp.852-859.
  4. Bromley, S.M., 2000. Smell and taste disorders: a primary care approach. American family physician, 61(2), pp.427-436.
  5. Jion, Y.I., Grosberg, B.M. and Evans, R.W., 2016. Phantosmia and migraine with and without headache. Headache: The Journal of Head and Face Pain, 56(9), pp.1494-1502.
  6. Can, I., Phantosmia (Olfactory Hallucinations) Phantosmia is a condition that causes you to detect smells that aren’t actually in your environment. It can happen in one nostril or both—and the odors may be foul or pleasant. Common causes include colds, allergies, nasal polyps and dental issues. Treatment depends on the underlying cause.
  7. Nordin, S., Hedén Blomqvist, E., Olsson, P., Stjärne, P., Ehnhage, A. and NAF2S2 Study Group, 2011. Effects of smell loss on daily life and adopted coping strategies in patients with nasal polyposis with asthma. Acta oto-laryngologica, 131(8), pp.826-832.
  8. Doty, R.L. and Hastings, L., 2001. Neurotoxic exposure and olfactory impairment. Clin Occup Environ Med, 1, pp.547-575.
  9. Sharma, V.K., Teoh, H.L. and Chan, B.P., 2010. Comment on “Intravenous thrombolysis for acute ischemic stroke: The Malabar experience 2003 to 2008”. Journal of Clinical Neuroscience, 17(4), pp.543-544.
Team PainAssist
Team PainAssist
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Team PainAssist, Pain Assist Inc. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:August 11, 2023

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