Impaired Smell

Written by April Kahn | Published on August 30, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

What Is Impaired Smell?

Impaired smell is the inability to smell properly. Impaired smell can describe a complete inability to smell or the partial inability to smell. It is a symptom of several medical conditions and may be temporary or permanent.

Loss of smell can occur due to problems in the nose or problems in the brain or nervous system. If you have difficulty smelling, you should consult with your doctor, in case it is a sign of a more serious underlying issue.

Potential Causes of Impaired Smell

Impaired smell can be temporary or permanent. Temporary loss of smell usually occurs along with allergies or bacterial or viral infections, such as

  • nasal allergies
  • influenza
  • colds
  • hay fever

As you age, an impaired sense of smell is a normal occurrence. The impairment is usually a distorted sense of smell rather than a complete inability to smell.

Other conditions that can cause impaired smell include:

  • dementia (memory loss)
  • neurological disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease
  • tumors in the brain
  • malnutrition
  • nasal tumors or surgeries
  • head injuries
  • sinusitis (sinus infection)
  • radiation therapy
  • viral upper respiratory infections
  • hormonal disturbances
  • nasal decongestant use

Certain prescription medications, such as some high blood pressure medications, can also alter your sense of taste or smell.

Diagnosing the Cause of Impaired Smell

If you have an impaired sense of smell, consult with your doctor before using over-the-counter treatment products. When speaking with your doctor, let him or her know when you first noticed the changes in your ability to smell. Also, notify him or her of any other symptoms you may be experiencing.

Answering the following questions can help the doctor pinpoint what may be causing your impaired sense of smell:

  • Can you smell some foods but not others?
  • Can you taste foods?
  • Do you take any medications?
  • What other symptoms do you have?
  • Have you recently had a cold or flu?
  • Do you have or have you recently had allergies?

After reviewing your medical history, the doctor will perform a physical examination of your nose. He or she will perform tests to see if there are any blockages in your nasal passages. These tests may include:

  • CT (computed tomography scan)
  • MRI (magnetic resonance scan)
  • X-ray
  • nasal endoscopy (examination of the nasal passages with a thin tube that contains a camera)

These tests will help the doctor get a closer look at the structures within your nose. Imaging tests will reveal whether there’s a polyp or other abnormal growth obstructing your nasal passages. They can also help determine if an abnormal growth or tumor in the brain is altering your sense of smell. In some cases, your doctor may need to remove a sample of cells from within the nose (perform a biopsy) to make a diagnosis.

What Treatments Are Available for Impaired Smell?

Impaired smell caused by a viral or bacterial infection is often short-lived. In the case of bacterial infections, antibiotics may be given to speed up the healing process, which can help to restore smell. Decongestants and over-the-counter antihistamines can help relieve nasal congestion caused by allergies.

If you have a stuffy nose and are unable to blow your nose, use a humidifier to moisten the air. Keeping a humidifier in your home can help relieve congestion by loosening mucus.

If a neurological disease, tumor, or other disorder is causing your impaired smell, you will receive treatment for the underlying condition. Some cases of impaired smell may be permanent.

How to Prevent Impaired Smell

There’s no sure way to prevent the loss of smell. However, you can minimize the risk of contracting colds or bacterial infections by taking the following steps:

  • Wash your hands frequently throughout the day.
  • Wash your hands after touching public areas, such as subway seats.
  • Stay away from people who have colds or the flu.

Be familiar with the possible side effects of all your prescription medications. Side effects printed in the leaflet material may include impaired smell.

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