Loss of smell, or anosmia, is a condition that can range from nuisance to safety hazard. The loss of smell can affect the taste of food or appreciation of pleasant odors -- but a complete loss of smell could mean being less alert to dangerous situations, like fire or a gas leak. While rarely an indicator of a serious condition, loss of smell can impact quality of life.
What Is a Loss of Smell?
Loss of smell is the inability to detect odors in the environment. The condition can be partial or complete. An associated condition of loss of smell is parosmia, in which a person can detect smells but they don’t smell the way one remembers them. Because the sense of taste is heavily dependent on the sense of smell, loss of smell can cause an individual to lose interest in eating, which can lead to unwanted weight loss or malnutrition.
Who Can Experience a Loss of Smell?
Loss of smell can happen to anyone. There are no particular genetic tendencies toward loss of smell, although children are rarely affected. Loss of smell usually occurs during adult life.
Common Causes of a Loss of Smell
Temporary loss of smell can occur from a number of common causes: nasal congestion from a cold, sinus infections, and so on. These conditions usually clear up in a few days and are not considered cause for alarm.
Other causes for the total loss of smell include:
- Trauma (which can shear the nerves between the nose and the brain)
- Viral illness
- Obstruction due to abnormal nasal anatomy
- Exposure to harmful chemicals or solvents
- Nasal polyps
Of these causes, viral illness is most common and tumors are the least common cause. Aging can also result in a progressive and permanent loss of smell.
How an ENT Physician Can Help Relieve Loss of Smell
When diagnosing loss of smell, an ENT physician will first use imaging to ensure the condition is not due to a tumor. Unfortunately, in the case of tumors, an ENT physician cannot be of much further help.
We can, however, aid in recovery from nasal obstructions. In these cases, there may be surgical means of helping patients recover their sense of smell, usually through removing the obstruction or polyp causing the condition. We also make sure to advise patients about safety issues and dealing with an impaired sense of smell, such as making use of fire and natural gas detectors and dating foods in the refrigerator.