What is smell loss?

A smell can bring you into the remote past in an instant.

Many people take their sense of smell for granted. However, losing just some of your sense of smell can affect your quality of life, resulting in deep feelings of loss and, in some cases, isolation and depression. Smell loss affects millions of people worldwide. In fact, it’s been estimated that around 5% of people in the UK are affected by smell loss – that’s around 3.25 million people – with an additional 15% affected by a reduced sense of smell (hyposmia). Despite this, there are currently few treatments to help most people affected by smell loss.

It’s an invisible disability. People are always saying to me ‘smell this’. It is very frustrating; you wouldn't tell a blind man to look at the lovely scenery!

72%

are scared of being exposed to danger

72%

report a change in perception of thier own body

66%

feel more anxious than when they could smell

64%

report their enjoyment of food has decreasaed

50%

report their condition makes them feel angry

47%

report feeling isolated

46%

report feeling more vulnerable

38%

report that it has affected their romantic relationship

36%

lose motivation to eat

32%

report decreased enjoyment of intimacy

Did You Know

12.4%

of Americans over the age of 40 have complete or partial loss of smell
There are currently no treatments to help most people with smell loss

How is smell loss defined?

Your sense of smell can also affect your sense of taste. Many people confuse their smell loss with losing their sense of taste (ageusia); however, taste disorders are much rarer than smell disorders

 

How is smell loss defined?

Without the autobiographical memory accessible via smell, we have a faltering sense of self. Are we not the sum of our memories

Molecules produced by a substance, such as a perfume, are known as odorants. When they enter the nose, they stimulate nerve cells known as olfactory nerve cells found high in the nose. The olfactory nerves in turn send messages to the brain. These identify each specific smell.

Our sense of smell also affects our ability to appreciate food and drink; without this sense of smell, flavours are limited to salty, sweet, sour, bitter and savoury (umami).

 

Anosmia is a complete loss of your sense of smell

Hyposmia is a reduced sense of smell that can also be accompanied by parosmia and phantosmia

Parosmia is a distorted sense of smell

Phantosmia is when you experience smells that aren’t there. It affects between 10 and 60% of people who have smell loss

 

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How can smell loss affect my everyday life?

Without a sense of smell, some people find it difficult to enjoy life. They lose a big part of the sensory experience that smell brings to being close to a partner or to our children.

Our sense of smell is closely related to how we experience and interact with the world. Smell loss can affect everything, including relationships and work life. There may be fewer practical problems associated with losing your sense of smell, than with loss of sight or hearing. However, studies have shown that many people who have smell loss experience emotional problems and social isolation that can affect every part of their lives.

I can no longer enjoy the everyday smells I used to take for granted: perfume, freshly mown grass, freshly baked bread, roses.

It’s a strange type of disability. People don’t really get it. After all, we don’t need guide dogs or hearing aids. It’s true that we can get by. We can do most things we could before – except enjoy the most important things in life that most others take for granted.

I have a three- year-old son and I've never been able to smell him.

 

 

 

 

 

Smell loss has affected the vividness of how I experience the world

Smell loss can affect who you are and how you live.
It can mean:

  • Not enjoying simple things such as your favourite foods and drinks, leading to a loss of pleasure in eating and drinking. This can also make you feel socially isolated when you’re out with friends or family
  • Altered eating habits – eating much more or less – causing you to gain or lose too much weight
  • Worrying about your personal hygiene – for example, whether you’re washing frequently enough, or whether you’ve applied too little/too much perfume
  • Concerns about smells around your home – does it smell of your animals? Is food overcooking/burning? Should you be changing your baby’s nappy more often?
  • Safety worries in the home – would you know if food was past its best? Could you detect the smell of a gas leak?
  • Worries at work – particularly if your job involves having a good sense of smell, for example working with food or in healthcare
  • Feeling embarrassed, frustrated, or angry that your condition isn’t properly recognised – others may not believe you, may trivialise your condition, or make you feel ‘different’
  • Reduced libido – sense of smell is closely linked to enjoyment of sexual relationships
  • Getting less pleasure from experiences – our sense of smell is linked to enjoying life
  • Difficulty forming close relationships: sense of smell is closely linked to sexual attraction as well as to feelings of bonding with children.

How is smell loss diagnosed?

Your doctor may refer you to a neurologist to rule out more serious brain problems. Or an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist who may carry out an endoscopic examination of your nose. This involves putting a tiny camera on the end of a tube into your nose.

They may also carry out other tests including:

  • Checking the lowest strength of a smell that you can detect
  • Asking you to compare different smells

You may already have been referred to an ENT specialist. Have they been able to find out why you lost your sense of smell? Have they offered you any treatment?

When should I see my doctor?

Short-term changes in your sense of smell are common after a cold or sinus infection. However, if you’re worried about long-term changes in your sense of smell, you should seek medical advice. In some cases, changes in your sense of smell can be a warning sign of a more serious condition. 

Because it’s so uncommon, many doctors haven’t had experience of patients with smell loss.

Smell loss has affected the vividness of how I experience the world

 

 

My doctor told me that it was unlikely to be serious and might come back by itself. That was three months ago and it hasn’t got any better. It’s worse that I could ever have imagined.

How can smell loss be treated?

In some cases, correcting an underlying medical condition or stopping medication that’s affecting your sense of smell can effectively treat smell loss. Cleaning the inside of your nose with a salt water solution can help if you’ve been affected by an infection or allergy. However, in many cases, your doctor may not be able to offer you any treatment for your smell loss.

A survey of ENT consultants showed that treatment for smell loss in the UK is variable and that patients receive little support because of the lack of options available to clinicians. At the moment, there is no clear clinical pathway, with many doctors believing that the condition is untreatable.

If your sense of smell continues to be affected, smell training can help improve your sense of smell.

 

How can losing your sense of smell affect taste?

We experience taste through taste buds that are on our tongue and in our mouth. The taste buds pass information to the brain about whether food is sweet, sour, salty, bitter or savoury (umami). Smell loss means that foods lose their flavour, or that our perception of their flavour becomes distorted. This can even make some foods taste unpleasant.

Smell training

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