Phantom smells may be a sign of trouble

Phantom smells may be a sign of trouble

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Smelling disorders, including phantom smells and a lack of smell, can be a sign of serious health problems.

In a 2009 episode of “Mad Men,” a character with some major health issues — stroke and dementia — mysteriously smelled oranges while eating chocolate ice cream. Shortly after, the man dies while standing in line at the A&P.

Was the phantom orange scent a warning sign of his impending doom?

It’s possible, says Dr. Alan Hirsch of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago.

“By all means, a phantom smell could mean something serious,” says the psychiatrist and nationally recognized smell and taste expert. “It absolutely needs to be evaluated. It could be a tumor – that’s on the top of your list of things to rule out — but it could also be a cyst or some infectious agent housed in the area of the brain where the smell is processed.”

Brief episodes of phantom smells or phantosmia — smelling something that’s not there — can be triggered by temporal lobe seizures, epilepsy, or head trauma. Phantosmia is also associated with Alzheimer’s and occasionally with the onset of a migraine.

But it’s not typically something sweet that’s conjured up by the brain.

“It’s usually more unpleasant stuff or odors that are hard to describe,” says Hirsch. “People will say it’s chemical-like or talk about a burning smell.”

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Common olfactory hallucinations include lots of icky odors. Sufferers report smelling hydrogen sulfide (rotten eggs), bad perfume, garbage, a gas leak, wet dog, pungent body odor or spoiled fish or feces. The brain may trigger such sickening odors instead of agreeable ones because humans learned very early to avoid noxious smells for survival.

“I think a larger area of the brain is represented by bad smells than good smells,” says Hirsch. “And they also may be easier to ‘fire off.’”

Smelling smoke can be sign of a seizure

Smell disorders aren’t that rare. According to a 1994 survey, 2.7 million Americans have some type of olfactory problem, including anosmia (the inability to smell); hyposmia (a decreased ability to smell); parosmia (a distorted perception, instead of flowers, you smell rotten meat), and phantosmia. Another 1.1 million people have issues with taste (smell and taste are inextricably linked) including ageusia (the inability to taste); hypogeusia (a decreased ability to taste) and dysgeusia (a distorted ability to taste).

Phantom fragrances can be produced by one or both nostrils and can waft in and out of a person’s life over the course of a few hours or a few days or a few weeks. In some cases, such as that of a 35-year-old New Zealand woman who said her nose caused everything to “smell blimmin’ awful” for 17 years, the condition can come and go for no apparent reason for decades.

In a New York Times story, a woman suffered a succession of unpleasant phantom odors, from dank earth to burnt chili. When antibiotics failed to treat the condition, she simply learned to live with it — and avoid disagreeable odors.

Even if there is no underlying tumor, epilepsy or some other infection, problems with your sense of smell can be very disabling.

“Frequently, [patients will] lose a substantial amount of weight because they can’t stand the way everything tastes,” says Hirsch.

Furthermore, doctors will often treat it like a psychiatric problem, with patients visiting an average of seven physicians before getting help, says Hirsch. The irony is, some people with phantosmia will develop psychiatric disorders, depression or suicidal behavior as a result of their condition.

“Approximately half of my patients who have sought surgery for their distortions have at one time considered suicide because of the hopelessness of living a life where all food smelled like spoiled meat or worse,” Dr. Donald Leopold of the University of Nebraska Medical Center’s otolaryngology department wrote in the 2002 edition of Chemical Senses.

Sometimes people think the stink is coming from themselves, which can lead to a condition known as olfactory reference syndrome, says Hirsch.“They’ll wash frequently and won’t go out. It will start with phantosmia, but then they’ll develop secondary paranoia as a result.”


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Medical tests such as MRIs, CT scans and EEGs can find common physiological triggers such as tumor, sinus infection and epilepsy, but some patients never understand why they’re suddenly inundated by the smell of garbage or rotting fish or burned coffee or cheese. While pinpointing the cause of phantosmia can sometimes be difficult, treatment is available, including nasal saline drops, anti-depressants, sedatives and anti-epileptic drugs.

Most patients respond to medication, however, a surgical procedure involving the olfactory bulb has also been shown to provide relief. Although normal aging brings a gradual loss of smell, phantosmia sometimes occurs with a reduced ability to smell real scents, another matter that can have serious ramifications, Hirsch says.

“AIDS can initially present with smell loss,” he says. “Or it could be anything from vitamin deficiency to Alzheimer’s to hypothyroidism to head trauma to stroke to diabetes to medication to leprosy.”

One quick way to test whether your sense of smell is diminished is to dish up a bowl of ice cream.

“Take some vanilla ice cream and some chocolate ice cream and see if you can taste the difference,” says Hirsch, who says ninety percent of taste is smell. “If you can’t smell, they both taste the same.”

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Onions and Indigestion


Janet Renee, MS, RD


Siddhi Camila Lama, MS, PhD, CNC, CPT

Whether they’re red, yellow or white, onions are versatile vegetables that can be used in a variety of different and delicious ways. Unfortunately, the way you cook them can’t help you resolve onion indigestion. This issue primarily occurs because of the fermentable carbohydrate content in onions.

Onion Nutrition Facts

About 87 percent of onions produced in America are yellow onions, which are the most versatile type of onion. These onions can range from 4.5 inches to less than 1 inch in diameter. Yellow onions are often mild to moderate in flavor, but certain varieties are distinctly sweet.

The USDA states that 100 grams (3.5 ounces) of yellow onions typically has 132 calories, and 10.8 grams of fat — most of which come from healthy unsaturated fats like omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. Yellow onions also contain 1 gram of protein and 7.9 grams of carbohydrates. Out of these carbohydrates, 1.7 grams come from fiber.

Yellow onions primarily have vitamin B6 (12 percent of the daily value) and vitamin K (18 percent of the daily value). These onions have a variety of other essential vitamins and minerals, but most of those are only present in small amounts of between 1 and 4 percent of the daily value (DV).

Keep in mind that not all yellow onions have the same nutritional value. For example, the same amount (100 grams) of sweet yellow onions has 32 calories, 0.1 grams of fat, 0.8 grams of protein and 7.6 grams of carbohydrates. There are 0.9 grams of fiber within these carbohydrates.

Sweet yellow onions have no vitamin K or omega fatty acids, but do contain:

  • 8 percent of the DV for vitamin B6
  • 6 percent of the DV for vitamin B9 (folic acid)
  • 5 percent of the DV for vitamin C
  • 6 percent of the DV for copper

Onion Intolerance and Allergic Reactions

Typically, allergies produce a standard set of symptoms. According to the Mayo Clinic, allergies tend to cause issues like:

  • Tingling and itching throughout the body, including in the mouth
  • Hives, rashes and eczema
  • Swelling of the lips, face, tongue and throat
  • Trouble breathing and asthma-like symptoms, including wheezing
  • Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting

In some cases, allergies can be so severe that they close the airways and cause sudden drops in blood pressure. This is a sign of anaphylactic shock, which requires urgent medical care.

According to a November 2014 study in the Recent Patents on Inflammation and Allergy Drug Discovery Journal, onion allergies don’t always produce the same symptoms compared to regular allergies. Instead, an onion allergy may result in health issues like dermatitis, asthma, and gum, eye and nose diseases.

Onions can also cause pollen-food allergy symptoms when ingested, because they have similar proteins to mugwort pollen. Essentially, this means that if you are allergic to mugwort pollen, you may react to onions, garlic and a variety of other fruits, vegetables and spices.

If you’re experiencing onion indigestion, it’s likely that you have a type of onion sensitivity. Such onion sensitivity often causes gastrointestinal symptoms like indigestion and can be from either or both immune responses or intolerance.

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may need to eliminate onions from your diet entirely. However, if your onion sensitivity is mild, you may simply need to find out the maximum amount you can consume before experiencing gastrointestinal side effects.

Onion Indigestion and Fermentable Carbohydrates

Most onions are primarily carbohydrates and contain minimal amounts of other macronutrients. Large amounts of these carbohydrates are fermentable short-chain carbohydrates, which are known as FODMAPs (or fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols). According to an article published in 2016 in the journal Clinical and Experimental Gastroenterology, onions are particularly rich in the first type of FODMAP: oligosaccharides.

Many people can eat fermentable short-chain carbohydrates without experiencing any issues. However, not everyone can digest FODMAP-rich foods. People with chronic gastrointestinal problems like irritable bowel syndrome and people with malabsorption disorders are particularly sensitive to FODMAP-rich foods.

This is partly because FODMAP-rich foods aren’t easily absorbed by the small intestine. They are then fermented as they pass through the gastrointestinal tract. This fermentation process can result in a variety of gastrointestinal problems. Gut issues like indigestion, bloating, gas, cramping and stomach pain are all common side effects.

If you regularly experience onion indigestion, it’s very likely it’s due to FODMAPs. Unfortunately, if you have onion intolerance of this type, it’s likely that you’re reacting to many foods — not just onions. The Journal of Clinical and Experimental Gastroenterology study says that a wide variety of plant-based products, including garlic, artichokes, leeks, beetroot, watermelon, peaches and most dried fruit contain oligosaccharides too.

Onions and Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease

According to a September 2017 study in the World Journal of Gastroenterology, onions are well-known for causing epigastric burning and heartburn. Their consumption often causes intestinal smooth-muscle dysfunction, which is another cause of indigestion.

Similarly, onions cause dysfunctions of the lower esophageal sphincter, like gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). According to Harvard Health Publishing, 19 million Americans have this condition.

If you have GERD, issues with your lower esophageal sphincter’s functionality can cause stomach acid and digestive juices to enter your esophagus and irritate it. Stomach acid can even rise up the esophagus into your mouth. This can cause a range of other problems, including food regurgitation, laryngitis, dental erosions, coughing fits and asthma.

Although there are a variety of medications that can treat GERD, people with this condition will often be asked to make lifestyle changes too. These changes include drinking less alcohol, losing weight, not smoking and avoiding trigger foods, like onions, garlic and citrus fruits.

While it may be unpleasant to remove onions from your diet entirely, GERD can be serious if left untreated. This condition can result in esophagitis, the inflammation of the esophagus. Certain people with particularly severe esophagitis are even at an increased risk for esophageal cancer.

Growing Onions: The Complete Guide to Plant, Care, and Harvest Onions

Steph is a certified Square Food Gardening Instructor who has been gardening for more than 10 years in Canada where the winters are long and cold, and the summers are unpredictable. She is a volunteer for her community’s Incredible Edible project. In the past she created an educational gardening space for seniors and taught classes at a local community center where she created her own curriculum and activities. She participated in several local municipal garden days where she set up a booth to educate citizens about the joy of gardening.

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I love to cook, so naturally, onions are always somewhere in my pantry or fridge. Red, yellow, white, and gourmet varieties have all found their way into my dishes at one point or another. I can’t recall the last time I cooked and didn’t chop up an onion.

I love onions raw, cooked, and caramelized. While I don’t love the tears that come with slicing up an onion, I’ve learned a few tricks over the years. I’m most fond of the time I wore goggles and a scarf to cut up an onion for risotto. People laughed, but it worked! Next time, consider donning a pair of ski goggles to prevent the stinging burn of onion-cutting.

I’ve only grown onions a handful of times, mostly because I often forget to start them early enough. They’re an incredibly rewarding crop, though. There’s something about harvesting a nice big onion. Tomatoes? Easy peasy. Everyone and their grandmother grow tomatoes, but for many, onions are a mysterious crop.

I think it’s because a lot of folks don’t know where most of their food comes from. I remember explaining to family members how Brussel sprouts grow – I got some incredulous looks! Even certain kale varieties seem a bit weird to the newly minted gardener. Onions, too, are a food we rarely think about, but couldn’t go without.

The guide below covers popular onion varieties, planting pointers, care tips, and more, so you can confidently grow onions in your garden space.

Onion Plant Info

  • Hardiness Zones: 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9
  • Soil: Loam, sandy, clay, PH between 5.5 to 6.5, well-drained, fertile
  • Sun Exposure: Full sun
  • Planting:
    • Start Indoors: 4 to 6 weeks before the last frost date
    • Hardening Off: 7 to 10 days before transplanting
    • Transplant Outdoors: 6 weeks after planting indoors
  • Spacing: 4 to 5 inches between plants and 12 to 18 inches between rows
  • Depth: ½ to 1 inch seed depth
  • Best Companions: Tomato, lettuce, chamomile, rose, strawberry, summer savory,
  • Worst Companions: Beans, peas, sage, asparagus, leek, garlic
  • Watering: Thoroughly after planting and once a week thereafter, 1 inch of water per week
  • Fertilizing: Apply high nitrogen fertilizer every few weeks, stop fertilizer application once bulbing begin
  • Common Problems: Black mold, botrytis leaf blight, downy mildew, fusarium basal plate rot, pink root, fusarium damping-off, rust, purple blotch, white rot, smut, leaf streak, onion yellow dwarf, pythium seed rot, leafminers, bulb mites, onion maggot, onion thrips,
  • Harvest: 80 to 150 days after transplanting, when the leaves begin to yellow and fall off

Onion Varieties

There are many onion varieties, but here are a few of my favorites.

  • Ailsa Craig: This classic Spanish onion tastes great raw. It produces large bulbs up to 6-inches in diameter and takes 105 days to maturity.
  • Yellow Cipollini: Quite possibly my favorite onion variety, I’m always so excited to see Cipollini at the farmer’s market. They mature in about 80 days, and they have a pleasant flavor profile.
  • Red Baron: Red Baron is a red onion that produces 3-inch bulbs. It takes 115 days to reach maturity.
  • New York Early: An early-maturing variety that is ready to harvest in 98 days. It has lovely yellow flesh.
  • Evergreen Bunching: This is one of the first onion varieties I ever planted. It’s a quick growing, with exceptional winter hardiness.
  • Valencia: Valencia is another Spanish-type onion. It has beautiful brown skin and milder flavor than other varieties. It matures in 120 days.
  • Gladstone: Gladstone is a white onion that’s somewhat sweet and suited for northern growing. It matures in 110 days.
  • Walla Walla: Walla Walla is resistant to disease, features white flesh and produces uniform bulbs. It’s a long day onion.

Long or Short Day

Long-day onions are ideal for colder climates, while short-day onions are best for warmer southern climes. Bulb formation occurs in response to temperature and day length. Long day onions need longer days to spur bulb growth – about 14-16 hours of daylight.

Short day varieties will begin to bulb when sunlight hours are between 10 and 12. Most short-day types are poor candidates for long term storage. While it’s possible to grow short day onions in the north, you’ll likely experience setbacks and won’t get a useful harvest.

Planting Onions

Growing Zones

Onions are a cool season crop and typically have long growth periods. They grow best in zones 3-9.

Sun and Soil Preferences

Onions prefer full sun and well-drained, fertile soil with a pH between 5.5-6.5.

Starting Seeds

Onions are best planted in the early spring and harvested by the end of the season.

Start seeds in flats indoors 4-6 weeks before the last frost date. Alliums are the earliest seedlings to be started indoors. It’s possible to sow seeds directly in the garden (or plants onion sets), but starts will move things along much quicker. Germination of onion seeds takes 1-2 weeks, depending on conditions.

The key is starting onion seed indoors early enough so that the starts have a sufficient amount of time to mature.

Planting in the Garden

Transplant onions outdoors six weeks after starting indoors. Be sure to harden them off for 7-10 days before putting them in the ground. Some gardeners cut back the tops of seedlings when transplanting, but I think it’s better to leave them alone to allow for sufficient top growth, as it has a direct impact on bulb growth.

Plant onions in an area where the soil is fertile and loose enough to allow for the bulb to expand. Onions can also be grown in a garden bed or raised bed. Onions used for their leaves (green onion, chives) are well-suited to containers.


Space plants about 5 inches apart with 18 inches between rows. If you’re a Square Foot Gardener, plant onions 9 per square foot. Put seeds 1-inch deep.

Onion Sets Versus Seeds

Sets are little dried onions that you can use to get a head start on the onion growing season without the need to start indoor seeds months prior. Onion sets are easier for beginners but don’t provide the same results as transplants started from seed. They typically produce smaller bulbs.

If you’ve purchased sets for planting but the soil isn’t warm enough yet, store in the fridge until planting time. Plant sets fairly shallow.

Caring for Onions

Here are a few tips for caring for your growing onions:


Water enough to prevent drought, but adequate mulching and rainfall, depending on where you live, could be enough. Watering evenly is vital to avoid misshapen bulbs. Give plants about an inch of water per week.

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Weed growing onions regularly to prevent competition for space, which can reduce bulb size.


Keep onion beds well-mulched. Mulching helps to keep weeds down and conserves moisture.


Onions are heavy feeders, so fertilize early in the season with nitrogen-rich fertilizer and then again at regular intervals during the season. Stop once the bulbs have formed. Too much nitrogen may negatively impact plants, so take care to test your soil first.

Crop Rotation

Do not plant alliums in the same place where you grew onions in previous years.

Troubleshooting Onions

Here are a few issues you may encounter while growing onions.

I planted an onion from my kitchen that was sprouting, but I dug it up at the end of the season and didn’t find any edible bulb. What happened?

You can’t plant a sprouted bulb and expect it to multiply into more onions. Instead, enjoy the delicious green tops that have sprouted.

My onions aren’t bulbing. Why not?

Did you choose the correct onion for your region? Onion bulbing occurs mainly in response to day length and temperature. Growing the wrong type of onion may result in tiny bulbs or none at all. No bulbs may also mean that your plants are getting excess nitrogen.

My onion bulbs are misshapen. Why?

To prevent uneven bulb formation, make sure to water evenly throughout the season.

Problems and Solutions to Growing Onions

Plant diseases are such a pain, but knowing what to look out for helps prevent the further spread of fungi and bacteria. Here are some illnesses that onions are susceptible to. While onions are an excellent companion for many plants due to their pest repelling properties, there are a few pests that prey on allium family plants.

Botrytis Leaf Blight and Downy mildew

Botrytis leaf blight disease is characterized by the white spots it causes on leaves. Downy mildew produces greyish leaf spots.

Both diseases slowly kill the plant off. Prevent them by watering from below and avoid planting onions in shaded areas. Crop rotation is also important. Get rid of infected plant material to prevent the spread of the disease.

Black Mold

Black mold is caused by the fungus Aspergillus niger. It can attack bulbs both as they’re growing or in storage. Ensure your garden has good drainage and air circulation. Your storage area should have good circulation as well. Avoid damaging the bulbs when harvesting, because that provides a place for the mold to enter.

Pink Root

As the name implies, this disease will give your onions pink roots, which eventually turn purple and then rot. It’s caused by a fungus found in the soil. Use good crop rotation practices, choose disease-resistant varieties, and solarize your soil if you have this disease to prevent it from returning next year.

White Rot

If you notice your onion leaves turning yellow or dying, with the decay starting at the base, you might have white rot. You may also see a fluffy white fungal growth around the base of the bulb.

The best way to tackle white rot is to avoid it. Clean your tools between use, buy certified clean seeds, and rotate your crops.

Yellow Onion Dwarf

You’ll know if you have yellow onion dwarf if your onion leaves have yellow streaks, which will eventually turn the entire leaf yellow. It also causes bulbs to be undersized. There is no chemical control for this virus, so don’t use sets if you struggle with it because they can be contaminated. Instead, choose certified disease-free seeds. Pull and destroy infected plants.


Leafminers create distinct linear marks towards the ends of onion leaves. The leaves may eventually twist and crinkle thanks to the damage. You may also find tunnels chewed through the onion bulb. These tunnels create the ideal condition for fungi and viruses to get in.

You can use a spinosad-based spray to control them, along with yellow sticky traps.

Bulb Mites

There are several kinds of mites that attack onion bulbs. Some are round and resemble tiny pearls, while others are elongated. Both attack growing onions and onions in storage. Both cause stunted growth and promote rot.

To control them, rotate your crops and don’t plant onions where you’ve had brassicas in the past few years. You can also soak seeds in 2% soap, 2% mineral oil and water for 24 hours before planting. Keep garden areas clean and well-weeded.


These little tiny tan bugs can be controlled using natural pest spray like neem oil.

Onion Maggots

Onion maggots come from grayish-brown, hump-backed flies. Prevent these pests by covering your onions with insect netting or row covers and yellow sticky traps. If onion maggots are a problem, limit the amount of mulch you use around your onions. Don’t leave onions to rot in the soil; dispose of them to prevent attracting maggots.

Companions Planting for Onions

Onions are an excellent companion for many garden plants because the strong smell is a powerful deterrent to many pests.

Best Companions

  • Brassicas
  • Tomatoes
  • Lettuce
  • Beets
  • Spinach
  • Chamomile
  • Rose
  • Strawberry
  • Summer Savory

Worst Companions

Harvesting and Storing Onions

It’s time to harvest onions once a flower stalk has emerged or the tops have entirely died over (similar to potatoes). Onions are typically harvested at the very end of the growing season, usually 80-150 days after planting.

Pull up the onions if you plant to use them right away. For storage onions, remove surface dirt to expose most of the bulbs and wait for the skin to dry. Pull from the soil and leave to cure outside.

While the onions are curing, protect them from rainy weather to prevent rot. The drying process may take several weeks, depending on the weather. In rainy regions, it may be best to bring onions indoors to continue the curing process. Store in a cool, dry place once fully cured. Sweet varieties are more likely to spoil, so eat them first.

Onions are genuinely one of the pantry staples I couldn’t live without. I use them for virtually every single meal! In the summer, fresh sliced sweet red onions offer a zesty bite to garden salads, and in the winter, a hot cup of French onion soup is a cozy treat. Growing onions used to seem challenging, but now that I know the secrets, I don’t hesitate to have an onion patch in my garden.

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