The Olfactory Reference Syndrome: When The Belief Of Smelling Bad Invades Everyday Life

The olfactory reference syndrome: when the belief of smelling bad invades everyday life

Some mental disorders are well known and therefore less difficult to detect. Others who do not have a great visibility in society, can on the other hand be suffered for a long time without the person recognizing the symptoms. This is the case  with olfactory reference syndrome, a curious psychological problem that few people have heard of.

Olfactory Reference Syndrome is  a mental disorder characterized by the irrational belief that we smell bad and inconvenience those around us. This concern leads the person to misinterpret the actions of others and to look for signs that they are not bothered by his scent.

In extreme cases,  this syndrome can cause problems such as extreme shame, anxiety, and avoidance of social situations. The latter symptom can contribute to the development of social phobia and isolation behaviors, especially if the syndrome is not detected in time. It is therefore important to learn to recognize it in order to treat it correctly.

Olfactory reference syndrome: most common symptoms

Neurologist Pryse-Phillips first described this syndrome in 1971  to describe a group of patients who believed their bodies were emitting bad smells and people around them sensed the same. Authors such as Bishop and Davidson further considered it to be an olfactory-type delusional idea. Others classified it as a specific type obsessive-compulsive disorder.

woman with olfactory reference syndrome

Although there is no official classification yet for this disorder in the latest edition of the DSM (the most widely used diagnostic manual by psychologists),  some associations of psychologists have described several of the more common symptoms of this disorder. Thanks to their efforts, it is now easier to diagnose Olfactory Reference Syndrome and to treat it properly.

Some of the most common symptoms are  as follows:

  • Complaints about own smell
  • Misinterpreting the behavior of others
  • Repetitive behaviors
  • Problems in managing the day-to-day
  • Comorbidity with other disorders

1- Complaints about your own smell

The main component of Olfactory Reference Syndrome is the irrational belief that one’s  own odor is particularly bad. Different people obsess over the different origins of this unpleasant odor, and may even change them over time. But some of the most common are bad breath, armpit or foot odor.

Also,  some people are not sure what the source of the unpleasant smell they think they are. However, they are always certain that the bad smell exists. The concern sometimes stems from the belief that a certain type of body secretion smells particularly strong, such as sweat, urine or stool.

In more extreme cases,  the person may believe they have an unnatural odor. For example, rotten onions, stale fish or strong cheese. These types of patients are generally those who most often present with a co-morbid condition with other disorders.

2- Misinterpretation of the behavior of others

People with Olfactory Reference Syndrome misinterpret the innocent behaviors of others and associate them with their supposed bad smell.  For example, they believe that a person’s distance, as well as their gestures, sneezes, or actions such as opening a door or window, have to do with how they smell.

Depending on the severity of the disorder, the person with the olfactory reference syndrome may have a  great intrusion of this type of belief in their daily life. This is why the syndrome is sometimes misdiagnosed.

3- repetitive behavior

The majority of people with olfactory reference syndrome exhibit obsessive behaviors related to personal cleaning. They tend to  mas quer the smell that the worries. These repetitive behaviors often promote the development of extreme anxiety. They also generate problems in their daily life.

Some of the most typical behaviors of people with this syndrome are showering very frequently, smelling the parts of the body that are worrying them all the time, brushing their teeth at all times, or using too much perfume or deodorant. to avoid bad smell. These behaviors do not seem very harmful at first glance. However, performing them at any time can interfere with the daily routine. 

man with olfactory reference syndrome

4- Problems to manage daily life

In the more advanced stages of the disease,  people with olfactory reference syndrome can avoid social situations  so as not to disturb those around them and not feel ashamed. The consequences, in general, can include job loss, divorce, or even the inability to leave home.

5- Comorbidity with other disorders

Olfactory referral syndrome can end up causing all kinds of troubles in the person who suffers from it.  These disorders can correspond to personality disorders and even lead to substance abuse. Detecting this syndrome in good time is essential to prevent it from generating more serious mental illnesses.


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