A well-functioning sense of smell is something most people take for granted, until it’s lost. Losing your sense of smell, known as anosmia, impacts not only your ability to detect odors, but also other areas of your life. Many individuals report a decreased quality of life with both temporary and permanent anosmia.
Your sense of smell is directly related to your ability to taste. When you can’t smell or taste your food, your appetite is likely to wane.
Anosmia may be temporary or permanent. Common causes include:
- colds or flu
- sinus infections
- chronic congestion
Other conditions that might affect your sense of smell are:
- nasal passage obstructions, such as polyps
- Alzheimer’s disease
- brain aneurysm
- chemical exposure
- radiation or chemotherapy
- multiple sclerosis
- traumatic brain injuries or brain surgery
- certain genetic conditions, such as Klinefelter syndrome or Kallmann syndrome
Some medications or nutritional deficiencies may also impact how well you smell.
Life without smell
Larry Lanouette temporarily lost his sense of smell due to the effects of chemotherapy. Anosmia significantly altered his sense of taste and his ability to enjoy eating. He tried to draw on his memory to make eating more pleasant. “When I’d eat food, I remembered what it was supposed to taste like, but it was a total illusion,” he said. “Eating became something I had to do because I needed to, not because it was an enjoyable experience.”
Larry’s food of choice during his cancer battle was canned peaches. “I wanted to enjoy their scent but couldn’t,” he recalls. “I would conjure up memories of my grandma’s peach cobbler so I could enjoy the experience.”
When once asked what he’d like to eat for dinner, Larry replied, “It doesn’t matter. You can put anything in a skillet and fry it up, and I wouldn’t know the difference.”
Smelling a carton of milk or leftovers to see if they’ve spoiled was impossible. Larry had to have someone do it for him.
Eating wasn’t the only thing impacted by Larry’s loss of the ability to smell. He said not being able to smell the outdoors was one of the things he missed the most. He recalls leaving the hospital after an extended stay, anticipating smelling the fresh air and flowers. “I couldn’t smell a thing,” he reveals. “I could only feel the sun on my face.”
Intimacy was affected, too. “Not being able to smell a woman’s perfume, hair, or scent made intimacy bland,” he said.
According to Larry, losing your sense of smell makes you feel like you’re losing control. “You lose the simple comforts of finding what you’re looking for,” he explained.
Fortunately, Larry’s anosmia was temporary. It gradually returned as the cancer medications wore off. He no longer takes smelling for granted and feels his sense of smell is heightened. “I savor all of the individual flavors and smells in foods now.”
Ten things you may experience if you lose your sense of smell:
- an inability to taste food, which can lead to eating too much or too little
- an inability to smell spoiled food, which can lead to food poisoning
- increased danger in the event of a fire if you cannot smell smoke
- losing the ability to recall smell-related memories
- loss of intimacy due to the inability to smell perfume or pheromones
- losing the ability to detect chemicals or other dangerous odors in your home
- lack of empathy from family, friends, or doctors
- inability to detect body odors
- mood disorders such as depression
- lack of interest in social situations, which might include being unable to enjoy the food at a social gathering
Coping and treatment
Losing your sense of smell is traumatic, but there is hope. According to the New York Otolaryngology Group, half of all anosmia cases can be treated and reversed with nonsurgical therapies. Symptoms and the effects of loss of sense of smell can be reduced in most other instances with coping strategies.