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Anosmia: When Your Nose Doesn't Know

Updated on May 27, 2017
Annette R. Smith profile image

Annette lives in Orlando, Florida. She enjoys writing about health, green living, and other topics. She was born with a weak sense of smell.

Anosmia is a lack or loss of the sense of smell. To learn more about this smell disorder, from causes and treatments to my personal experience, read on.

People with anosmia cannot perceive smell.
People with anosmia cannot perceive smell. | Source

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. | Source

The Anatomy of Smell

The sense of smell originates with 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 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 partial loss of smell.

Anosmia Foundation

The Anosmia Foundation is a nonprofit organization based in Canada. Founded in 2001, its goals include:

  • To promote the acceptance of anosmia as a medical disability
  • To maintain support for those who suffer from anosmia
  • To expand the availability and accessibility of treatment
  • To inform and educate the general public about anosmia
  • To encourage anosmia awareness in the medical community

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

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 the 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.

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. | Source

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 that, "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.

© 2011 Annette R. Smith


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    • melbel profile image

      Melanie Shebel 5 years ago from New Buffalo, Michigan

      I grew up with a sense of smell, but, for an unknown reason, I lost my sense of smell when I was about 18 or 19. Occasionally I can smell some things, but it only lasts about a day. Oddly enough, there are a few things I can always smell -- roses are one of them. I always attributed it to the idea that maybe I have such a strong memory of how they smelled and it's more of a memory thing and that roses are not something that I can actually smell. (I hope that last bit there makes sense.)

      I do have a sense of taste, but it is not as strong as it used to be, so I rely a LOT on texture.

      The list of famous anosmics is really cool, it makes me feel not so left out. And if you ever feel left out, just know there is another hubber out there like you! :P

    • Annette R. Smith profile image

      Annette R. Smith 5 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Hi, melbel. Thanks for stopping by. It's a pleasure to meet a fellow anosmiac!

      I've heard of phantom smells (phantosmia, I think it's called) and memory smells -- maybe that's what you experience with roses.

      I sometimes wonder if my problem has more to do with not being able to IDENTIFY smells, rather that NOT smelling something in the first place (or, are they the same?). Take air fresheners and colognes, for example. I can't smell fragrances, but sometimes I can smell what I perceive as a chemical scent.

      You're right about taste sensations; I think we anosmiacs rely as much on texture as on taste. Thanks again for reading my hub and sharing your thoughts. I look forward to reading your hubs, too!

    • profile image

      Lindsey 5 years ago

      I found this to be very interesting. I am also a anosmiac, and have been so since birth. It was nice to find why i could still taste even though i can't smell, finally giving me an answer to all those know-it-all people who try to tell me otherwise. I read you were talking about phantosmia (phantom smells) and i was wondering if you knew if i could potentially still experience those even if i have had no smell since birth. If i can, that may explain a few incidents, but i was just wondering. Thank you so much for writing this, and especially listing the famous people with anosmiac, it was nice to know there are other people out there with this condition.

    • Annette R. Smith profile image

      Annette R. Smith 5 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Hi, Lindsey! Thank you for reading my hub and sharing your experience with anosmia. Phantom smells and olfactory hallucinations fascinate me, too. I find that I can "smell" coffee whenever I look at a piece of coffee-colored paper or fabric. Crazy, I know. I really must do more research into this. Maybe another hub? Thank you for the encouragement.

    • Hayley Richardson profile image

      Hayley Richardson 5 years ago from London, UK

      I have selective anosmia and parosmia with some dysgeusia. I can't smell most things hanging in the air unless they're very strong and with the parosmia, when I can smell something I can't always identify what it is. I lost my sense of smell after a really bad sinus infection last year but it's slowly getting better.

    • Annette R. Smith profile image

      Annette R. Smith 5 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Hello, Hayley. It's a pleasure to meet you! Smell and taste disorders are interesting things, to be sure, and they do seem to differ from one person to another. Thank you for telling us about your experience with smell and taste distortions. I appreciate your comment and the follow!

    • profile image

      Kerri Kvasager 5 years ago

      I can relate to a lot of what melbel said. I too lost mine for no apparent reason. I was in my late 20's and it slowly disappeared over a couple of years. What melbel said made perfect sense-- sometimes I think I smell something, but then wonder if it isn't the memory that I am "smelling". Other times I do think I catch a faint whiff of something, only to lose it when I try to smell it again. My sense of taste sure isn't what it used to be, and I find myself can't being able to get enough of things like sauerkraut and buffalo sauce, two things I wouldn't touch before I lost my smell. I miss it like you wouldn't believe (well, maybe you would) and still hold out hope that one day it will spontaneously return.

      By the way, I am the one in the video above ("Anosmia Life Without Smell"). I was surprised to see it on here and got a kick out of that. :)

    • Annette R. Smith profile image

      Annette R. Smith 5 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      It's good to meet you, Kerri. How nice to have a celebrity stop by! The video is great, and I hope it helps readers understand this disorder a little better. Thank you for sharing your experiences with us -- on the film, and here on HubPages!

    • melbel profile image

      Melanie Shebel 5 years ago from New Buffalo, Michigan

      Kerri, I have the same thing with foods. I eat massive quantities of honey mustard, something I wouldn't touch before! I also put gobs of sugar in my food and get whole milk. Anything with a rich flavor, really.

    • profile image

      Kerri Kvasager 5 years ago

      Yep, rich good and sweet stuff. I was never into sweets before losing my smell. I wish I was one of those who doesn't want to eat due to their anosmia so they lose a bunch of weight. That I could handle.

    • Mazzy Bolero profile image

      Mazzy Bolero 4 years ago from the U.K.

      I found this hub very interesting, Annette. I wonder why you can smell certain things occasionally and yet nothing at other times? My grandmother lost her sense of smell and that was a problem because she couldn't tell when food was "off" and when I was small she would offer me food that smelled awful and would insist that it was fine! However, as you say, there are some times when not smelling things is an advantage:)

    • Annette R. Smith profile image

      Annette R. Smith 4 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Hello, Mazzy. Thank you for reading my anosmia hub, and for telling us about your personal experience through your grandmother's loss of smell. I often wonder how my food, laundry and rooms smell to other people. Fortunately, I have guidance and assistance from my husband!

    • profile image

      SarahKathleenPage 4 years ago

      Hi there, I also suffer from Congential Anosmia. I have blogged about my experiences etc here:

    • Annette R. Smith profile image

      Annette R. Smith 4 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Hi, Sarah. I appreciate your visit to "Anosmia: When Your Nose Doesn't Know." Thank you for reading, commenting and sharing a link to your personal story.

    • Cyndi10 profile image

      Cynthia B Turner 4 years ago from Georgia

      Very, very interesting article. There are so many things that can cause a loss of smell. I don't have that condition, but I can see that getting brief whiffs of various smells can add another layer to one's life and you would want to savor it when it occurs. Most of us just take the sense of smell for granted. I am very thankful for mine. Voted up.

    • Annette R. Smith profile image

      Annette R. Smith 4 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Hi, Cyndi. Those rare occasions when I get a brief whiff of a nice smell are wonderful! They don't happen often, but when they do, I feel blessed. Thank you for the read, comment and vote up!

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 4 years ago from USA

      This is wonderful information about anosmia! When I was in my 40's, I used a lot of solvents while airbrush painting. Even though I wore a mask, I believe that they dulled my sense of smell, so I can relate somewhat to you anosmia. I can still smell many scents, but some are totally gone. The one I miss the most is the scent of my favorite flower, the Lily of the Valley.

      Great article and I will link it to my new hub on "Your Sense of Smell-More Important Than You Think."

      Voted up and shared!

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 4 years ago from Florida

      I have a keen sense of smell, but sometimes I wish I didn't. Like when someone sits next to me in a theater with a heavy perfume, OR if my pampered Schnauzer who sleeps with me lets go with a big "you know what" in her sleep!

      Interesting Hub. Voted UP and will share.

    • Annette R. Smith profile image

      Annette R. Smith 4 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      Hello, Stephanie. Thank you for reading my article, and for sharing a little about your own experiences with this fascinating sense of smell. I'm sorry that the paint solvents dulled your ability to smell some scents, particularly that of your favorite flower.

      Thank you for linking my article to yours. I wanted to return the favor, so I added a link in this hub to your very informative "Your Sense of Smell-More Important Than You Think." I appreciate the votes and shares!

    • Annette R. Smith profile image

      Annette R. Smith 4 years ago from Grand Island, Florida

      I envy your keen sense of smell, Mary. But my husband and teenage stepson remind me that I'm blessed when I can't smell those strong, unpleasant "natural" scents! Thank you for the read, vote, and share. They come at a great time, too: tomorrow is Anosmia Awareness Day!

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