Loss of smell, or anosmia, is not widely talked about or considered a major disorder. However, there are millions of people suffering from this overlooked and devastating condition. Even medical professionals tend to undervalue the seriousness and harmful effects on health and quality of life.
A loss of smell can be temporary or permanent, partial or complete. There are various causes. Some people are born with the condition, which can be genetic. Sometimes it can be caused by polyps or other nasal obstructions. Sinus infections, allergies, the flu or even the common cold can trigger a loss of smell due to irritation of the mucous membrane lining the nose. Anosmia resulting from a cold is usually only temporary. Almost everyone has experienced a short duration of loss of smell during a bout with the cold or flu.
However, more serious conditions can cause long-term or permanent anosmia. Receptors in the nose send messages to the brain via nerves. Damage to the brain or nerves can interfere with normal functioning. The damage can result from a brain or head injury, brain surgery, Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease, as well as stroke, epilepsy or multiple sclerosis.
Old age, medication, chemical exposure, smoking and alcoholism have also been identified as contributing to anosmia. Many people who contracted Covid-19 experienced a problem with their sense of smell, even long after recovering from the virus.
Sometimes smell loss goes away on its own and while there are some treatments for anosmia caused by nasal irritation, there are not many solutions for more serious cases. It doesn’t help that some healthcare professionals can be dismissive of anosmia compared to other sense concerns, like sight or hearing.
Anosmia can take a huge toll on sufferers mentally, physically and financially. A study revealed that people with anosmia can feel terribly isolated and depressed and their personal relationships may deteriorate. They are often unsure about where to get medical help due to negative or indifferent reactions from healthcare professionals, not to mention the costs of specialists and treatments can be considerable.
Those without anosmia might take for granted how much the sense of smell factors into their everyday lives, experiences and memories. A new baby’s smell, grandma’s cookies, a fresh bouquet of flowers can all bring joy and meaning to our world. Consider that a person with a smell disorder might not enjoy a meal since flavor is tied to smell, as well as taste. They may not eat as much as is necessary since food is no longer as appetizing. They may not want to gather around the dinner table in anticipation of a delightful shared meal, as they wouldn’t be able to participate in the experience the same as the others. This may lead to lack of appetite, unintended weight loss and poor nutrition, and just as painful, a feeling of loneliness and rejection. Dealing with anosmia can also put a person in danger or make them physically sick. They do not have the ability to know if the milk has gone sour or the meat is rancid before tasting. They cannot tell if the stove’s gas has been left on or if something is burning until they visually or tangibly become aware.
There are many other ways anosmia can adversely affect day to day life. How is a sufferer to be sure of their personal hygiene in different situations? After a vigorous workout you may guess you need a shower, but what if you’re only mildly perspiring before a big meeting at work or before meeting someone for a date? How can you be sure you don’t need a quick swipe of deodorant? Maybe you don’t, but you cannot be sure. This can be a truly stressful way of living. Even in cases where there is no cure, anosmia sufferers deserve empathy, support and respectful medical advice.