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My Life With Anosmia: When Your Nose Doesn't Know

Anosmia is a lack or loss of the sense of smell. To learn more about this smell disorder, from causes and treatments to my personal experience, read on.

People with anosmia cannot perceive smell.

People with anosmia cannot perceive smell.

What is Anosmia?

Olfaction, or the sense of smell, is one of the five primary senses used for perception. Sight, hearing, touch, and taste round out the list.

Many people take their sense of smell for granted. Have you ever wondered what life would be like without the ability to smell your favorite food or fragrance?

Some people do not have to wonder. A smell disorder keeps them from recognizing or distinguishing scents. They were born without the ability to smell, or they lost it somewhere along the way.

There is a name for this condition. The medical community calls it anosmia (an-OHZ-me-uh). Depending on the cause, the condition can be temporary or permanent.

While anosmia may indicate an underlying medical condition, it is not necessarily serious. However, a lack of smell can sometimes trigger a loss of appetite, which can lead to excessive weight loss, malnutrition, or even depression.

Head anatomy showing the olfactory nerves.

Head anatomy showing the olfactory nerves.

The Anatomy of Smell

The sense of smell originates with the olfactory nerves in the brain. At the top of the nasal passages, and behind the eyes, is a small patch of neurons with hundreds of odor receptors.

Because these olfactory receptor neurons are out in the open, they come into contact with air. Tiny hair-like projections called cilia increase their surface area.

Fragrant products, or anything with scent, have odor molecules -- light, volatile chemicals that are released into the air through evaporation. Non-volatile solids, such as steel, have no scent because nothing can evaporate from them.

In order for someone to perceive smell, odor molecules must enter through the nose. As they bind to the cilia, they trigger nerve signals to the brain. A specific gene encodes each olfactory receptor. If this gene is damaged or missing, a person cannot detect specific odors.

Nerve damage, brain injury, and other medical conditions can also cause problems with smell. They usually cause a decrease or loss of smell. In some cases, however, odors are intensified, distorted, or hallucinated.

What Causes Anosmia?

Anosmia has many different causes. The common cold is the usual culprit, and it creates a temporary loss of smell. Influenza, sinus infection, chronic congestion, allergic reactions, and sneezing that is unrelated to allergies are other prevalent causes.

Anything that obstructs the nasal passages and blocks airflow can cause smell problems. Nasal polyps, tumors, and bony deformities inside the nose are common nasal obstructions. Most nasal blockages cause partial loss of smell.

Anosmia Foundation

The Anosmia Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Canada. Founded in 2001, its goals include:

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  • To promote the acceptance of anosmia as a medical disability
  • To maintain support for those who suffer from anosmia
  • To expand the availability and accessibility of treatment
  • To inform and educate the general public about anosmia
  • To encourage anosmia awareness in the medical community

According to the American Academy of Neurology (AAN), nearly 14 million people over age 55 have smell disorders.

The AAN says anosmia may be an early indicator of certain neurological disorders like Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis, and Parkinson's disease.

Brain surgery and damage caused by tumors and aneurysms often impact smell. Diabetes, hormone imbalances, zinc deficiencies, and cancer drugs are also linked to anosmia.

Congenital anosmia is a rare condition that causes a lifelong inability to smell from birth. It is often a symptom of Kallman syndrome.

Anosmia Treatments

Medical treatments help people with temporary anosmia recover their sense of smell. Antibiotics clear up bacterial infections that interfere with smell, and antihistamines are helpful for allergy related symptoms. The surgical removal of nasal polyps can clear blockages and improve smell.

Cigarette smoke is known to dull the senses, including smell. Kicking the habit may improve the problem. The proper use of nasal sprays and decongestants may prevent problems with smell perception,and zinc supplements are worth considering as a natural remedy.

Sometimes, the sense of smell returns spontaneously. Many people, however, live with anosmia throughout their lives. When a lack of smell is due to nasal inflammation or infection, it is usually temporary. People with olfactory nerve damage may never recover the sense of smell.

Congenital anosmia is hard to diagnose because it does not show up in medical tests. People with this condition must learn to live with the disorder because there is no cure or treatment.

Compared to blindness and hearing loss, anosmia is a benign condition. While it is usually not life altering, it has its dangers. An inability to perceive smell can hinder awareness of fire, smoke, gas leaks, spoiled food, and other warning signals. People must rely on their other four senses to alert them to danger.

My Life Without Smell

"Smell is a primal sense," says Bonnie Blodgett in Remembering Smell. Most people can smell before they can think. I was born with a weak sense of smell, so I never relied on it for taste, emotion, or memory.

When I talk about my problem, most people have no idea what I mean. It makes no sense to people who can experience smell. Have you even heard of anosmia before now? I was surprised to learn that it had a name when I researched the subject some years ago.

My family and friends have short-term memory when it comes to my sense of smell. After all this time, they still forget. "Smell this," they say as they hand me a bar of soap, a plate of food, or a cologne counter sample.

Even in the midst of my protests, they tempt my nostrils. "See if you can smell this," they say. So I sniff. "You smell it now, right?" they ask. "Yes, I think I can smell it," I reply. "It's really nice." Sometimes, it is just easier to pretend.

There is a silver lining, however. It is my good fortune not to smell bad odors like dog breath, dead skunks, automobile exhaust, dirty laundry, or excessive sweat and body odor.

But I also miss out on many of life's pleasant scents, such as the smell of rain, fresh flowers, Christmas pine, baby powder, fragrant candles, kitchen aromas, and my husband's cologne. Such is my life without smell.

Even people with anosmia enjoy chocolate.

Even people with anosmia enjoy chocolate.

What About Taste?

My inability to smell scent makes me unaware of what I am missing. But I know what is not missing: my sense of taste.

"What about food? Can you taste anything?" is a common question for those with anosmia. Some people think they already know the answer. In fact, they are quick to inform anosmia sufferers that, "You can't taste food if you can't smell it."

This is simply not true -- for me and many others with my condition. Smell and taste are two different senses, and the inability to perceive them are two different conditions.

Ageusia describes a lack of taste sensation. It is a companion term to anosmia, but it is not always a companion condition. Many people assume that those with anosmia have ageusia too, because the sense of smell helps people taste the full flavor of foods.

While a lack of smell may impact taste, most people can still identify the four main taste sensations: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. My taste buds can do this. I can also appreciate the nuances of cheese, chocolate, cola, and other flavors. I may not experience them the way most people do, but their flavors are pleasurable to me. Especially chocolate!

Extraordinary Blessings

You may wonder if I can smell anything. My sense of smell is very weak, and I can rarely perceive a fragrance or odor. But it happens from time to time. Here are two examples.

Once, after an early morning rain, my brother and I crossed the lawn of his business campus. "What's wrong?" he asked when I stopped suddenly. "Nothing," I replied, "but I think I smell something and I want to enjoy it." My brother explained that it was the lingering scent of rain mingled with the fresh cut grass. What an amazing scent.

On another occasion, my husband and I were shopping for candles. I looked for the visually appealing ones, and he looked for the great-smelling ones. As he sampled the fragrances, I was drawn to a candle with a strong cinnamon scent. I had to bury my nose deep in the jar to smell it, but still. It was nice.

Because these moments are rare, I rarely think about my disorder. My husband alerts me to any bad smells at home, and he also selects my perfume and other fragrant products. Whenever a "new" scent surprises me, I consider it a blessing from God.

Your Turn

Were you born with anosmia, or did you lose your sense of smell somewhere along the way? Leave a comment and join the discussion.

Reference Sources

Medical Disclaimer

The information presented in this article is not intended as health or medical advice, nor is it a substitute for diagnosis or treatment by a qualified medical professional.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2011 Annette R. Smith


Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on September 04, 2017:

Hi, Lisa. Thank you for reading my article and sharing your story with us. I can't smell many scents at all, but I haven't experienced problems with taste. Not that I'm aware of, anyway! I hope someone reading these comments can answer your questions and offer some suggestions.

Lisa on September 03, 2017:

I lost all ability to smell 3 years ago I went to my doctor he had me do an MRI it came back fine. He had me go see an ears nose and throat doctor. That doctor stuck a camera up my nose and down my throat again nothing. So, I went back to my doctor and he said some people just lose there ability to smell and there's nothing to worry about. I haven't had any head injuries and I dont have diabetes I stay on a low carb diet. However, I now can't taste flavors like peanut butter, mint, peppermint and vanilla you name it. But, I can taste if something is sweet, salty, sour and spicy so now my taste buds are going away. The only thing that I think it could be is maybe hormonal I had a full hysterectomy when I was 29 and I'm 42 I dont take hormones because I had endometriosis and breast cancer runs in my family. I'm not sure what I should do my doctor just honestly acts like its no big deal.... please help any suggestions would be appreciated!

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on December 05, 2016:

Hi, Donna! Thank you for your comment and question. Anyone have an answer for Donna? It's encouraging that you can enjoy a whiff of something once in a while. I hope your sense of smell continues to improve.

Donna on December 04, 2016:

I was told my tastebuds nerve was accidentally cut in ci surgery. I have since then noticed I don't smell either .

Every once in a while I will get a wiff of a smell , can anyone tell me . Am I stuck this way or will it come back

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on July 20, 2015:

Nice to meet you too Annette. Thank you for sharing your story. You're welcome for the vote.

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on July 20, 2015:

Glad to meet you, Kristen. For years, I didn't know my condition had a name! Thanks for your comment and the vote up.

Kristen Howe from Northeast Ohio on July 18, 2015:

Annette, I never heard of anosmia and it's really interesting to know what causes it and how to treat it, if possible. Voted up!

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on May 19, 2014:

Hi, Debbie. Glad to meet you! Thank you for reading my article and joining the discussion. I am feeling grateful for my other senses, too. God bless you!

Debbie on May 18, 2014:

Hi. Thank you for drawing attention to this condition. It's been 11 years since I lost my sense of smell due to a head injury, and I miss it every single day. I feel shut out of life, like having a plastic bowl over my head. I was always strangely grateful for my sense of smell when I had it. I would always comment on how important smells were for sensory memory. I miss it so much. Also being unable to decipher flavours. However, whenever I see a blind person I realise how very very blessed I am to have my sight xxx

Brandon Swift from Malton, York, United Kingdom on March 09, 2014:

Thanks monell center that's a great help and ive found some Facebook groups which are really helpfull

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on March 08, 2014:

Thank you, Monell Center, for answering Brandon's question.

Monell Center on March 07, 2014:

Brandon - check out 'Fifth Sense' - a UK advocacy group that is doing great things?..

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on March 06, 2014:

Hi again, Brandon! I'm glad to hear that your operation wasn't painful. I'm not aware of any UK-based anosmia awareness groups. But Facebook has one; maybe their administrators can point you in the right direction.

Brandon Swift from Malton, York, United Kingdom on March 06, 2014:

hi. the operation wasn't painfull just had a swollen cheek for a few days. Do you know of any awareness days or groups that are based in the UK. It does get a little anoying when people just say smell this or can you smell that.and im always getting paranoird that I stink. Do you know if it can be passed down to children

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on March 05, 2014:

Hi, Brandon. Thank you for reading my article and sharing your personal experiences with us. I hope your operation was not too painful! I can't remember ever being able to smell during my childhood. These days, I occasionally get a whiff of something, but I can only describe it as a chemical smell.

Brandon on March 05, 2014:

I can't remember been able to smell so as far as I can remember I have never been able to smell. anD I can't small anything at all. I don't know if it affects my taste because I don't know what normal taste is. I got reffered to a specialist and had a few scans then it turned out i had a tooth stuck up my sinuses then I had an operation and it didn't affect me at all. and im only 19 aswell

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on March 01, 2014:

Monell Center: Glad you stopped by! I'm sure many of us anosmic people will appreciate learning more about "A Sense of Hope." Thank you for sharing the link.

Monell Center on February 27, 2014:

Finally - A Sense of Hope! The Monell Center, the world's leading research institute focused on the sense of smell, is proud to intoduce A Sense of Hope: The Monell Anosmia Project, a research and advocacy campaign. The announcement contains links to our new anosmia awareness site and to educational material on the Monell website. Let us know what you think! #anosmiahope

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on August 10, 2013:

Hello, Craig. I'm so glad you found my article, and I hope it was helpful in some way. The comment about congenital anosmia and breastfeeding is an interesting one. I should do some research on the subject. Anosmiacs do have awkward moments, don't we? Thank you for sharing some of your experiences with us.

Craig on August 10, 2013:

Great article. Have only just discovered today that my inability to smeall has a name.

I havent been able to smell for as long as I can remember which suggests from birth. An interesting comment I read on a related post was those with ICA would often show some difficulty during breast feeding as babies use smell at birth to find the nipple. Something (albeit a little awkward) I may have to discuss with my mother.

I too had the awkward moments through younger life with people making comments of "poo, was that you" or "you stink" ... This has followed me into adult life whereby, as someone who can sweat profusely, I am very self consious about body odour.

Thanks again.

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on July 14, 2013:

Hello, Greg. Thank you for reading my article and sharing a little about your own experience with anosmia. Sometimes I wonder if I could smell things when I was a little girl, but somehow lost my sense of smell (and the memory of it) somewhere along the way.

Greg Spence on July 14, 2013:

Lack of smell or anosmia can have very profound effects on your life. I suffered from viral encephalitis 5 years ago and lost all sense of smell as well as all memories. So I can no longer smell anything but have no memory of what things once did smell of. I find it very disconcerting when family or friends are drooling over something that is cooking and Im thinking what is all the fuss about. Social exclusion is very easy to understand

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on May 31, 2013:

Hi, Erin. Thank you for reading, "Anosmia: When Your Nose Doesn't Know." Your extreme sensitivity to smell must be as challenging as my inability to smell -- at times, anyway! I'm glad my article piqued your interest, and I'm grateful for the comment.

Erin Joslin from New Mexico on May 28, 2013:

This is very interesting. I think I have the opposite of anosmia. I have an extremely sensitive sense of smell.

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on May 27, 2013:

Hello, Sid. How wonderful that you have healed your sinus issues through natural healing. It's also interesting that your sense of smell comes back the healthier you get. I'm always delighted to get a whiff of something fragrant, but it doesn't happen often and I usually can't identify the scent. I'm glad you learned something new from my hub, and I thank you for the encouragement and votes!

Sid Kemp from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach) on May 27, 2013:

Wow, it has a name! Anosmia! I suffered from partial anosmia - pretty thorough - most of my childhood and into my thirties, due to chronic nasal problems. It didn't affect taste because the smells that go with taste can go up the back of the throat, around the bypass.

Through natural healing, I've largely healed my sinus issues for the last 20 years. My sense of smell is okay, but it still comes and goes for unknown reasons. It's some element of health balance, because, the healthier I get, the more it comes back. And it's delightful when it does (except in certain rude situations!).

I really appreciate what I learned from your hub. Voted up and interesting.

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on May 27, 2013:

Hello, idigwebsites. The sense of smell is probably the one we take most for granted. My struggle with anosmia makes me appreciate my other senses all the more. Thank you for commenting!

idigwebsites from United States on May 27, 2013:

It makes us realize to appreciate everything we have... including the things we take for granted such as our sense of smell. :)

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on May 26, 2013:

Thank you for reading about anosmia, ali khairat. I appreciate your word of encouragement.

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on May 25, 2013:

Hello, inder. I hope you learned something new! Thank you for the share.

inder from india on May 25, 2013:

nice information shared thanx a lot

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on May 24, 2013:

Hello, Susanna. It's a pleasure to meet another anosmiac! "You can't taste food if you can't smell it" is something I hear a lot, too. Although they often work together, taste and smell are two separate and distinct senses -- as you and I know. Thank you for your comment.

Susanna on May 24, 2013:

Ive never had a sense of smell! What I hate most is people telling me I cannot taste. Or people who have lost their sense of smell later in life saying that I cannot taste properly.

The only thing I cant taste are the different flavours of tea. All tea tastes the same - bitter and grassy it often makes me want to vomit. I really hate it.

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on February 27, 2013:

I envy your keen sense of smell, Mary. But my husband and teenage stepson remind me that I'm blessed when I can't smell those strong, unpleasant "natural" scents! Thank you for the read, vote, and share. They come at a great time, too: tomorrow is Anosmia Awareness Day!

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on February 27, 2013:

Hello, Stephanie. Thank you for reading my article, and for sharing a little about your own experiences with this fascinating sense of smell. I'm sorry that the paint solvents dulled your ability to smell some scents, particularly that of your favorite flower.

Thank you for linking my article to yours. I wanted to return the favor, so I added a link in this hub to your very informative "Your Sense of Smell-More Important Than You Think." I appreciate the votes and shares!

Mary Hyatt from Florida on February 27, 2013:

I have a keen sense of smell, but sometimes I wish I didn't. Like when someone sits next to me in a theater with a heavy perfume, OR if my pampered Schnauzer who sleeps with me lets go with a big "you know what" in her sleep!

Interesting Hub. Voted UP and will share.

Stephanie Henkel from USA on February 27, 2013:

This is wonderful information about anosmia! When I was in my 40's, I used a lot of solvents while airbrush painting. Even though I wore a mask, I believe that they dulled my sense of smell, so I can relate somewhat to you anosmia. I can still smell many scents, but some are totally gone. The one I miss the most is the scent of my favorite flower, the Lily of the Valley.

Great article and I will link it to my new hub on "Your Sense of Smell-More Important Than You Think."

Voted up and shared!

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on December 13, 2012:

Hi, Cyndi. Those rare occasions when I get a brief whiff of a nice smell are wonderful! They don't happen often, but when they do, I feel blessed. Thank you for the read, comment and vote up!

Cynthia B Turner from Georgia on December 13, 2012:

Very, very interesting article. There are so many things that can cause a loss of smell. I don't have that condition, but I can see that getting brief whiffs of various smells can add another layer to one's life and you would want to savor it when it occurs. Most of us just take the sense of smell for granted. I am very thankful for mine. Voted up.

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on September 23, 2012:

Hi, Sarah. I appreciate your visit to "Anosmia: When Your Nose Doesn't Know." Thank you for reading, commenting and sharing a link to your personal story.

SarahKathleenPage on September 23, 2012:

Hi there, I also suffer from Congential Anosmia. I have blogged about my experiences etc here:

Annette R. Smith (author) from Ocala, Florida on September 20, 2012:

Hello, Mazzy. Thank you for reading my anosmia hub, and for telling us about your personal experience through your grandmother's loss of smell. I often wonder how my food, laundry and rooms smell to other people. Fortunately, I have guidance and assistance from my husband!

Mazzy Bolero from the U.K. on September 20, 2012:

I found this hub very interesting, Annette. I wonder why you can smell certain things occasionally and yet nothing at other times? My grandmother lost her sense of smell and that was a problem because she couldn't tell when food was "off" and when I was small she would offer me food that smelled awful and would insist that it was fine! However, as you say, there are some times when not smelling things is an advantage:)

Kerri Kvasager on April 06, 2012:

Yep, rich good and sweet stuff. I was never into sweets before losing my smell. I wish I was one of those who doesn't want to eat due to their anosmia so they lose a bunch of weight. That I could handle.