Nosing Around Life without Scents 

August 15, 2016

3 minutes

Reviewed by Michael Kaplan, MD

A lilac-perfumed breeze whispers to you gently that spring is in the air. Freshly brewed coffee signals morning has arrived. A waft of sweet apple pie cooling on the counter heralds the arrival of guests for dinner. These are some of the delectable smells that enhance our lives… and are sometimes taken for granted.

Sight and sound are our primary senses for experiencing the world, with smell sometimes taking a back seat. But, what if you woke up one day and found that you were living in an odorless world? 

What Happens When You Can’t Smell?

Anosmia is the condition where one loses the ability to smell. Over 200 medical conditions (as well as numerous medications) have been associated with changes in one’s olfactory sense.

Idiopathic anosmia (a loss of smell with no known cause) accounts for about 22% of cases. 

On-the-Nose Anosmia Causes

A stuffy nose, the common cold, sinusitis, and hay fever will cause temporary anosmia in most people, due to swelling of the nasal passages and sinuses. 

Yet, as soon as these irritating culprits clear, smell is naturally restored. With long-lasting cases, such as nasal sinus disease or severe seasonal allergies, anti-inflammatory steroids or allergy medications generally resolve anosmia. 

Yet, there are some extremely stubborn cases. When people catch a cold, the infection goes away and the smell never comes back. Receptor cells in the nose die and regenerate every 30 to 60 days. Certain viruses, however, can damage the olfactory nerve. The viruses, called progenitors, can lead to permanent anosmia.

Some people report anosmia after suffering a strong blow to the head. Head trauma can sever the delicate nerves that transmit electrical impulses from the nose to the brain. 

As careful as we may be to keep our noses out of places they don’t belong, we should be just as careful about what enters our nostrils.

Long-term exposure to tobacco smoke, certain cleaning agents (such as ammonia), and long-term use of over-the-counter nasal swabs and sprays, especially products containing zinc, have also been known to damage the olfactory sense.

In addition, loss of smell may also be due to enlarged adenoids, nasal polyps, structural problems, or specific surgical procedures.

One of the most devastating forms of anosmia is the rare condition known as congenital anosmia. It is thought to be associated with improper prenatal development of the olfactory nerves.

People who suffer from congenital anosmia were born with a complete and absolute inability to smell. And as we are at a loss for words to explain scents to others (give it a try—can you come up with any words or terms to describe a fragrance to someone who never smelled a thing?), these people never develop the slightest concept of odor or scent.

Getting Your Smell Back

If the source of anosmia is identified, medical treatment of the underlying condition often brings a return to the sense of smell. To date, however, no medical treatments have been approved specifically to target anosmia.

On occasion, regeneration of damaged nerves or cells occurs spontaneously, and smell can return even after a period of years.

Loss of smell presents various challenges, some potentially dangerous. Without a functional nose, you may be missing an early warning system for the presence of fire, poisonous fumes, leaking gas, or spoiled food.


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