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Smell Disorders

By HERWriter
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Our sense of smell can be a source of great pleasure in our lives. We wake up to the smells of bacon and fresh brewed coffee and enjoy the scent of flowers or clean air after a spring rain. Smells can also provide protection by telling us when food is going bad or making us aware of fire through the smell of smoke. So when something impairs our sense of smell, the affects can be emotionally distressing as well as potentially dangerous.

How the Sense of Smell Works

We detect normal smells when odors stimulate specialized sensory cells called the olfactory sensory cells. These olfactory sensory cells are located in a small patch of tissue high up inside the nose. Smells reach these cells in one of two ways. When we inhale through the nose, odors are carried into the nose along with the air that we breathe. This is the way most people recognize when they think about their sense of smell.

The second way smells reach the olfactory sensory cells is through a special passage that goes from the roof of the throat up to the base of the nose. When we eat, odors released from the foods we chew travel through this passage to the olfactory sensory cells. This sense of smell enhances the sense of taste, making our food taste better.

When something goes wrong with the sense of smell, it’s possible to have a diminished ability to smell, known as hyposmia, or to lose the ability to smell all together, which is called anosmia. People with a reduced sense of smell sometimes report that things don’t smell the way they used to, or that things that used to smell good now smell bad. They also sometimes say they smell odors that are not actually present.

Causes of Smell Disorders
Many things can affect the sense of smell. Some of them are temporary, while others may be permanent.

Sinus infections can cause a temporary loss of the ability to smell. Smell usually comes back when the infection goes away.
Nasal polyps are growths in the nose that can block air from flowing freely. These polyps can also reduce the sense of smell because odors may not be able to reach the olfactory sensory cells. Surgery to remove polyps can also restore the sense of smell.
Head injuries from car accidents, or other causes can damage the nerves that carry odors to the brain, or can disrupt the brain’s ability to recognize smells. This can result in a permanent loss of the sense of smell.
Dental problems and poor oral hygiene can interfere with the ability to smell.
Exposure to chemicals
Medications including some antibiotics and antihistamines
Radiation for treatment of head or neck cancers

Losing your sense of smell can have serious effects on your health and safety. Problems with diet can result when food no longer smells good. Some people stop eating because foods no longer smell or taste the same, while others try to add flavor by loading up on salt or by eating more sugary foods. This can lead to high blood pressure, weight gain, and other potentially serious medical issues.

If you have anosmia, or a complete loss of the sense of smell, you need to remember that you are no longer able to recognize when food has spoiled. If possible, have someone else check food for freshness, and be sure to keep track of how long foods have been in the refrigerator to make sure you don’t eat food that is no longer safe. And make sure you have functioning smoke and carbon monoxide detectors in your home since your nose can no longer warn you of dangers from fire or natural gas.

National Institutes of Health
Problems with Smell: A Tutorial from NIH Senior Health

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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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