Anosmia: When Your Nose Doesn't Know
What is Anosmia?
Olfaction, the sense of smell, is one of the five primary senses that you use for perception. Sight, taste, hearing, and touch round out the five.
Of the five senses, smell is probably the most taken-for-granted sense. Have you ever wondered what life would be like without the ability to smell things?
Many people do not have to wonder because they have a smell disorder, such as an inability to recognize or distinguish scents. Some have a complete or partial loss of smell, while others never developed the sense in the first place.
There is a name for this condition; the medical community calls it anosmia (an-OHZ-me-uh). Depending on the cause, anosmia may be a temporary or permanent condition.
While it may sometimes signify an underlying medical condition, anosmia is not necessarily a serious problem. However, if you lose your sense of smell, you may also lose interest in food. This can result in malnutrition, excessive weight loss, and even depression.
Ageusia refers to a lack of taste sensation. It is a companion term to anosmia, but it is not always a companion condition.
Many people assume that anosmiacs have ageusia, too. After all, you need a sense of smell to taste the full flavor of foods. A lack of smell may hinder this ability, but most anosmic people can still identify the four main taste sensations: sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.
The Basics of Smell
Your sense of smell originates from olfactory nerves in your brain. Behind your eyes, at the top of your nasal passages, a small patch of neurons contain hundreds of odor receptors.
These nerve cells or olfactory receptor neurons are out in the open, so they come into contact with the air. Tiny hair-like projections called cilia increase the surface area of these neurons.
Anything with a scent has odor molecules, light and 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 you to smell something, odor molecules must enter your nose. As they bind to the cilia, they trigger a nerve signal and your brain perceives smell.
A specific gene encodes each olfactory receptor. If your DNA is missing this gene, or if it is somehow damaged, you will not be able to detect a specific scent. Nerve or brain damage may also result in a decrease or loss of smell. Sometimes, scents can become intensified, distorted, or hallucinated.
What Causes Anosmia?
Many things can contribute to smell disorders. The common cold is the usual culprit, creating a temporary loss of smell. Other conditions include influenza, sinus infection, hay fever, chronic congestion, or sneezing that is unrelated to allergies.
Anosmia may stem from nasal passage obstructions that block airflow through your nose. Possible obstructions include nasal polyps, tumors, and bony deformities inside the nose. Nasal blockage often results in a partial loss of smell.
Age can cause smell problems, too. The American Academy of Neurology says nearly 14 million Americans over age 55 have smell disorders. Anosmia may be an early indicator of Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis, and other neurological disorders.
Brain surgery or damage, such as tumors and aneurysms, often affect smell sensation. Diabetes, hormone imbalance, zinc deficiency, and cancer drugs are also linked to anosmia. If a sudden loss of smell does not return after a few days -- when a cold or sinus infection clears up, for example -- visit your doctor to rule out a serious health problem.
The Anosmia Foundation is a non-profit organization based in Canada. Founded in 2001, it promotes the acceptance of anosmia as a disability; supports anosmiacs; expands treatment access; encourages awareness in the medical community; and educates the public.
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Sometimes, medical treatments can help you recover your sense of smell. If a bacterial infection caused your anosmia, your doctor can prescribe antibiotics. If your condition is allergy-related, antihistamines can help. Surgical removal of nasal polyps may clear blockages and correct your problem.
Are you a cigarette smoker? Smoking dulls the senses, so quitting will likely improve your sense of smell. Avoid overuse of decongestants and nasal sprays, and ask your doctor about zinc supplements to improve your ability to smell.
Some anosmiacs regain their sense of smell spontaneously. For others, anosmia is a lifelong condition. If nasal inflammation or infection is to blame, you will probably recover your sense of smell. If nerve damage is the cause, you may never smell anything again.
Congenital anosmia, the absence of smell sensation from birth, is difficult to diagnose. The cause is unknown, it does not show up in medical tests, and there is no cure. Congenital anosmiacs must learn to live with their disorder.
Compared with vision or hearing loss, anosmia is a benign condition that is not usually life-altering. Nevertheless, it has its dangers. An inability to smell things can hinder your awareness of fire, smoke, gas leaks, burning or spoiled food, and other important warning signals. Anosmiacs must rely on their other four senses to alert them to dangerous situations.
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My Life Without Smell
"Smell is a primal sense," Bonnie Blodgett writes in Remembering Smell. Most of us were smellers before we were thinkers. I was born with a weak sense of smell, so I never depended on this sense for eating, feeling, and remembering.
As a child, I thought my inability to smell things was normal. And it is normal, for me. But when I try to explain it to people, most have trouble understanding me. It just doesn't make sense to anyone who isn't anosmic. Have you even heard of anosmia before now?
Most people who enjoy their sense of smell are unaware that anosmia exists. I didn't know my condition had a name until I started researching the topic a few years ago. Along the way, I've encountered people who refuse to believe that some of us can't smell anything.
My family and friends have short-term memory loss when it comes to my anosmia. After all these years, they still forget about my disorder. "Ah, smell this," they say as they hand me a scented soap, fresh-baked goody, or cologne counter sample.
Even in the midst of my protests, they tempt my nostrils again. "See if you can smell this," they say. So I sniff. "You smell it now, right?" they ask. "Yes," I say. "I think I can. It's really nice." Sometimes it’s just easier to pretend!
I know I'm fortunate not to smell certain odors: dog breath, skunk spray, car exhaust fumes, dirty laundry, excessive sweat and body odor. On the other hand, I miss out on the pleasant scents: fragrant candles, fresh cut flowers, the smells of a kitchen, my husband's cologne.
That's my life without smell.
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Have I ever smelled something, anything? Yes, on rare occasions. Here are two examples.
One morning after a rain shower, my brother and I crossed the lawn of the business campus where he worked. "What’s wrong?" he asked, when my walking came to a sudden stop.
"Nothing," I said, "but I smell something and I want to enjoy it." My brother said it was the scent of rain mingling with the freshly-cut grass. What an amazing scent!
My husband and I like candles in our home, and we enjoy shopping for them together. I look for the visually pleasing ones, and he tells me what smells nice. Once, as he sampled the fragrances, I was drawn to a rich cinnamon scent. I had to suck in the scent with my nose buried deep inside the candle jar, but still. It was nice!
I have lived with anosmia all my life, and I rarely think about my condition. My biggest problem is buying cologne, so I let my husband choose the fragrance. On the extraordinary occasions when a "new" scent surprises me, I consider it a little blessing from God.
What About Taste?
My inability to recognize scent makes me unaware of what I'm missing. But I know what is not missing: my sense of taste.
"Can you taste anything?" is a common question that people ask anosmiacs. And many think they already know the answer. They are quick to inform, in a matter-of-fact way, that you can't taste food if you can't smell it.
Not true -- not for me and many others like me. Remember, anosmia and ageusia are not always companion conditions.
My taste buds can distinguish between sweet and sour, bitter and salty. I can even taste the nuances of cola brands, hard cheeses, and chocolate flavors. Maybe I don't experience the full flavor, since I can't smell the food. But I can still enjoy the pleasures of eating. Especially chocolates!
Anosmia is still a little-known disorder. Yet millions of people have problems with their sense of smell. If you are one of them, you and I have company.
Several celebrities and dignitaries around the world are said to have anosmia. Here are ten famous anosmiacs:
- Bill Pullman (American actor)
- Michael Hutchence (Australian musician / INXS - deceased)
- Stevie Wonder (American singer /songwriter)
- Karen Duffy (American model / actress)
- Justin Hayward (English musician / Moody Blues)
- Ben Cohen (American businessman / Ben & Jerry's)
- Brian Mulroney (Former Canadian prime minister)
- William Wordsworth (English poet - deceased)
- Benjamin Urrutia (Basque-Israeli-American author / scholar)
- Mary Baker Eddy (American Christian Scientist - deceased)
If you have anosmia, were you born without the sense of smell? Did you develop the condition somewhere along the way? Tell us about it in the comments section below.
Some Anosmia Humor from the Television Comedy "Scrubs"
Reference Sources / Further Reading
- Blodgett, Bonnie. (July 16, 2010) "Anosmia: The Quiet Killer." The Huffington Post. Retrieved October 25, 2011.
- Brynie, Faith. (December 1, 2010) "New Help for Anosmia Sufferers." Psychology Today. Retrieved October 25, 2011.
- Discovery Fit and Health staff. (n.d.) "How Does the Nose Work?" Discovery Fit and Health. Retrieved October 25, 2011.
- Dunkel, Tom. (December 14, 2003) "The Unknowing Nose." The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved October 26, 2011.
- Mayo Clinic staff. (February 8, 2011) "Loss of Smell: Anosmia." Mayo Foundation For Medical Education and Research. Retrieved October 25, 2011.
- Wikipedia contributors. (October 22, 2011) "Anosmia." Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved October 27, 2011.
Health / Medical Disclaimer: The information presented on this website is not intended as health or medical advice, and it is not a substitute for professional diagnosis and treatment by a qualified health care professional.
Copyright © 2011. Annette R. Smith. All rights reserved.
Published: October 27, 2011 / Modified: July 1, 2013.
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