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Smelly Problem Could Be All In Your Mind

May 26, 2010

Psychiatrists are considering whether or not people suffering from a condition where they believe they smell bad should have its own entry in a popular medical reference assessing mental disorders.

Persons suffering from olfactory reference syndrome — a false belief that you smell bad — have become so serious that psychiatrists are debating if it should be listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

“I think it’s a very secret and hidden disorder, because these patients tend to be very ashamed of themselves,” Dr. Katharine Phillips, of Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, told Reuters Health. “I have been so struck by the intense suffering that the patients experience.”

Phillips presented her findings at the American Psychiatric Association annual meeting on Tuesday in New Orleans. She said that as many as two-thirds of her patients had thought about committing suicide because of the issue. Many stay home — continuously sniffing themselves, showering and washing their clothes — because they are afraid to go out in public, thinking they reek all over.

It is not known how common olfactory reference syndrome is. Although it has been described for more than a century, Phillips said most people have never heard about it. But because those who suffer from it tend to isolate themselves, “it may not be a rare disorder.”

A study done in the 1970s suggested that as many as 5 percent of people with the disorder may commit suicide. While that number — higher than for any other mental illness — has not been confirmed, Phillips believes it does warrant attention.

Phillips thinks the delusions begin when a person is in their teens. Many of her patients had tried and failed non-medical therapy and it is unclear what drugs may or may not work.

“I think there is a real need for treatment studies of this disorder,” Phillips said.

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