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

Annette writes for Savoring Home, a lifestyle blog about home, family, and faith. She lives in Florida with her husband and two torties.

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 from 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 a 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 a partial loss of smell.

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

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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 their 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.

Some Good, Some Bad

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, "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

Comments

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! http://bit.ly/Mzf3O8 #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!).