The human sense of smell is vastly underrated. Despite what we were taught in biology class, our nose can detect odors just as effectively as most other animals. We even outperform dogs at some scent-based tasks. Yet smell remains the universal answer to the eternal playground question ‘which sense would you rather lose?’
At the Pasha Snoring and Sinus Center, we understand the importance of having a healthy sense of smell. In fact, loss of smell is a problem we address often. So, to give credit where it’s due, in this week’s blog, we’re discussing the loss of smell, its common causes, and why it’s a bigger health hazard than you may think.
How You Lose Your Sense of Smell
First off, let’s discuss vocabulary.
- Anosmia refers to the complete loss of ability to smell.
- Hyposmia refers to a partial loss of smell.
- Phantosmia means smelling things that aren’t really there.
Although it has a more specific medical definition, anosmia is commonly used to refer to any loss or change in sense of smell; that’s how it will be used in this article.
Pretty much everyone suffers from anosmia at some point in their life. Most of the time, it’s a temporary loss of smell due to allergies or a virus such as the common cold. Inflammation resulting from these conditions blocks nasal passages, preventing scent molecules from reaching the receptors in the top of your nose.
Blockages can also result from structural problems such as a deviated septum or nasal polyps. Unlike allergies or a cold, structural problems don’t go away after a few days or a dose of medicine. And they don’t just affect your sense of smell, but your ability to breathe through your nose as well.
At the Pasha Snoring and Sinus Center, we commonly address blockage-causing structural problems and allergies through immunotherapy and in-office procedures. After recovery, patients frequently report an improved sense of smell, in addition to breathing better.
Recently, anosmia has been getting a lot of press due to its connections with COVID-19. Loss of smell is the best indicator of coronavirus infection, usually manifesting long before other common symptoms such as fever or fatigue. Sometimes loss of smell is the only noticeable symptom.
Coronavirus causes loss of smell by damaging cells in the nose supporting neuroreceptors that transmit scent-based information to your brain. In most cases, the receptors themselves remain unharmed. Sense of smell usually returns within a few weeks. However, it’s common for COVID-19 patients to lose their ability to smell for several months.
Although anosmia caused by coronavirus is generally temporary, it’s advisable to seek treatment if you don’t regain your sense of smell soon after recovering from COVID-19. The effects of the virus on the nose’s neuroreceptors are still poorly understood. There are other viruses out there known to attack the neurological links directly, sometimes leading to permanent loss of smell. So, it’s better to be safe than sorry.
The final, and probably most damaging, common cause of anosmia is trauma. Head trauma can damage or even completely sever the connections between the brain and olfactory receptors in the top of the nose. It’s not unusual for individuals to report a decreased ability to smell after suffering a concussion.
Interestingly, patients who report loss of smell after a concussion often suffer from anxiety and depression later on. This may be due to the close proximity of the olfactory bulb – the portion of the brain that processes smell, to the limbic system – the set of structures that process emotion and memory. If one is damaged, there’s a high probability the other will be affected as well.
The Effects of Losing Your Sense of Smell
In one of his famous philosophical musings, Plato once said that reality is too complex for humans to perceive; that our untrustworthy senses give false impressions of the true nature of things. Any individual who has lost their sense of smell would disagree with that statement.
Your sense of smell isn’t just for finding a Cinnabon or enjoying a bouquet; it’s a vital tool that helps you navigate the world safely. Studies have shown that people who suffer from anosmia are at increased risk of injury or death due to gas leaks or fires. They’re also more likely to get sick after eating spoiled foods.
Think of all the times your nose alerted you to food burning on the stovetop or unattended curling irons? Imagine an entire lifetime of those events going unnoticed until the smoke detector went off or until the milk turned green? If you can tell that milk is spoiled by looking at it, then it’s probably already been bad for some time. When you think of it that way, it’s easy to see how disasters are practically inevitable for those suffering from anosmia.
Other effects of anosmia may not threaten your life, but they can affect your ability to enjoy it. Scent is an important component of human interaction. Studies have revealed that we are capable of assessing emotional state, health status, and even genetic compatibility in other humans using smell. In fact, scientists believe that kissing is a subconscious way we lean in for a better sniff. When mom said that looks aren’t everything, she was onto something.
But scent plays a role in our social lives far beyond dating. The inability to smell and the inevitable reduced ability to taste that comes with it certainly take the fun out of food and drink-based social activities. This can lead an anosmatic to feel left out. Unawareness of one’s body odor is another problem that may arise in social situations. Recent studies have revealed that individuals with anosmia are at increased risk of mood disorders, even those whose condition is not attributed to trauma.
Loss of smell is not something to be taken lightly. If you or someone you love suffers from anosmia, it’s important to consult a specialist. At the Pasha Snoring and Sinus Center, we regularly address anosmia through allergy treatments and in-office procedures like nasal corticosteroid sinus implants, radiofrequency turbinate reductions, and balloon sinuplasties. These treatments offer benefits far beyond an improved sense of smell. Patients breathe better and feel better. Book a consultation with us today!