Updated: Jul 11
Most people have had the unfortunate experience of a common cold being accompanied by an extremely stuffy nose that causes temporary loss of smell. It’s an odd sensation when your sense of smell is gone for a few hours, or maybe even for a day or two. It is during those times that we realize how much we normally take our sense of smell for granted. So, can you imagine if you lost your sense of smell for good? Anosmia is the medical term for loss of the sense of smell. Some people are born without a sense of smell, while others lose their sense of smell due to a brain injury or nasal condition. The National Institute of Health estimates that 2 million Americans have lost their sense of smell.
In order to smell, a molecule from whatever it is that we are smelling stimulates the olfactory cells, which are located in the nose. These cells then send information to the brain to identify what it is that we are smelling. If something interferes with this important process, people can experience a temporary or complete loss of smell. Temporary loss of sense of smell can be caused by colds, allergies, and nasal blockage. Permanent loss of sense of smell can be caused by brain injury, nasal polyps, exposure to toxic chemicals, older age, or specific medications or medical conditions. Some people are simply born without a sense of smell.
The sense of smell doesn’t only affect the nose. Taste buds are also affected when the sense of smell is lost. Smell and taste contribute greatly to the quality of life. Without smell and taste, the desire to eat dwindles and eating not only nourishes our bodies but it also affects our social lives drastically. When smell and taste become impaired, people tend to eat poorly, socialize less and end up feeling worse. A smell can also warn us of dangers, like fire, poisonous fumes, and food that has spoiled.
If you are experiencing problems with smelling or tasting, a good first step would be to try and identify what was happening at the time your sense of smell went away. Was it when you had a cold or a head injury? Had you been exposed to air pollutants or something you could be allergic to? If your loss of smell is not attributed to a cold or allergy, or if it is a recurring problem, you should be tested by an ENT doctor- one who specializes in nose and sinus problems. Your doctor can use a special instrument to look inside your nose to see if an infection is present or if a polyp or growth is impairing your ability to smell or taste.
If a cold or is the cause of your anosmia, the problem will get better on its own. Over-the-counter decongestants can be used for short-term use to clear up the nasal passages. However, if you have an infection you may need antibiotics, and if a medical condition is found, your doctor will work with you to find a treatment.