Am I losing my sense of smell?

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Hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch – each of our five senses serve a purpose for living. Of the five, the sense of smell is unassuming and low-key. When it starts to fade, you may not notice right away, like you would with hearing or sight. But once it’s gone, it can transform your life.

Our brain identifies smells when odors from things like flowers and food stimulate the olfactory nerve in the nose. A lot of things can cause this process to breakdown. When you’re experiencing the congestion that accompanies colds, allergies and sinus infections, you may temporarily lose the ability to smell and, along with it, the ability to taste. Other causes include septal deviations, nasal polyps, smoking, head trauma, movement disorders like Parkinson’s disease, aging and, in rare cases – brain tumors. 

Why do we smell?

If you lose the sense of smell, it could diminish your quality of life. Why? The ability to smell helps us enjoy life and keeps us safe. In America, one of the things we enjoy doing is going out to eat. There’s a debate in terms of how much sense of smell complements taste. Some people say 30 percent, some people say 70 percent but, without a doubt, if you don’t have a sense of smell, taste is lessened. 

From a safety standpoint, you need your sense of smell to know if foods have spoiled or to alert you to a gas leak or fire.

How do you know if you’re losing your sense of smell?

Maybe your favorite food tastes different or you no longer notice the scent of lotions and candles. If you start to notice a loss of sense of smell, the best thing to do is come in for an evaluation. The doctor can do a physical examination and imaging if needed. One of the standard tools we use to screen patients for loss of smell is a lengthy scratch and sniff test. During the test, patients scratch and sniff while completing a smell identification questionnaire.

I can’t smell, now what?

If your inability to smell is due to an underlying disease, you want to make sure you have a treatment plan in place for it. If you have chronic sinusitis, medication can reduce the inflammation. If you’ve got a septal deviation or nasal polyps, surgery can help.

One of the things we do at Ohio State’s Wexner Medical Center that’s a little different is olfactory retraining. It’s a time-intensive process that, when combined with medication, is shown to improve the sense of smell. As part of the treatment, patients receive different vials and smell them for several periods of time during the day over a period of two to three months.

We also recommend patients have a strategy in place to keep them safe. For example, either have someone at home who has a good sense of smell who can test the food to make sure it’s still good or, after you cook, you don’t leave anything in the refrigerator for more than three days. Check smoke detectors monthly to make sure they work, and install a gas and carbon monoxide detector in your home. 

Alexander Farag is a head and neck surgeon and rhinologist in the department of otolaryngology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

 

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