Am I Smelling Things Through my Skin?

Okay, here’s a weird one for you: I’m beginning to think I smell things through my fingers.

I lost most of my sense of smell after the brain tumor, whether because the tumor damaged my olfactory nerve or because the surgery or followup radiation damaged scent receptors in my nasal cavity. I can hold something with a stron odor under my nose and not be able to detect it at all. But apparently I can–if it gets under my skin, so to speak.

I first noticed this with some wool yarn I inherited from my mother-in-law. I’d been working with the yarn early in the day, and later on I kept feeling as though I could smell the lanolin from the wool. I washed my hands, but the sensation persisted, and it seemed to grow stronger if I rubbed my fingers along my cheeks and under my nose.

Recently, I noticed the same thing with my lavender plant. I could hold the flowers up under my nose and barely smell them. But a while after I’d handled it–maybe half an hour or so–there it was, the persistent smell of lavender.

Coffee grounds seem to do it, too, and the strawberry-scented soap.I think I’m noticing it in other things, as well.

The pattern is always the same. The substance has to be something I’ve touched or handled, and it takes time, maybe a quarter or half an hour, before I really begin to perceive it. Once I do, the effect tends to linger.

Something else I’ve noticed is that the substances that seem to trigger this have oils or other carriers that linger on the skin. Dry or non-oily things literally don’t stick around.

Touching my fingers to my lips or tongue seems to intensify the effect as well. And, interestingly, my sense of taste seems to be just fine despite my inability to smell what I’m eating.

This could, of course, be all in my head. But it’s consistent enough, and reproducible enough, that I don’t think so.

Which makes me wonder: When I had the tumor, I’d sometimes think I smelled phantom smells, things that couldn’t possibly have been in the space I was in, like gasoline in the office. But what if I’d put gas in the car on the way home, and gotten a tiny bit on my fingers? In other words, is this something new, or something that could have been with me all along?

Since I’m nothing if not nosy, I went to Google and typed in a search: “Can people smell things with their skin?” I wasn’t expecting much, and most of the results were indeed irrelevant.

But one hit led me to this article at Discover.com,  about a paper in which researchers isolated several types of olfactory receptors in human skin, cloned one, and caused it to react to an artificial sandalwood odorant. The article also mentioned other research which showed olfactory receptors in the heart and lungs.

So apparently my skin really could be helping me smell things!

Have you ever smelled or tasted something through your skin? Any other odd sensory experiences you’d like to share?

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