Imagine walking through a bakery and not smelling the sweet aroma of freshly baked croissants. Or chomping through a park just after the grass has been cut and sensing nothing.
When it comes to losing senses, smell seems pretty low down on the severity scale.
If we’ve been blessed with the ability to see and hear, the idea of going blind or deaf can be a terrifying one. But losing our sense of smell can have pretty far-reaching consequences – and it’s way more common than you might think.
In fact, one in 20 people experience it at some point in their lives. And Carl Philpott, professor of Rhinology and Olfactology at the University of East Anglia, believes that it’s a problem that should be taken more seriously than it currently is.
‘Smell disorders affect around 5% of the population and cause people to lose their sense of smell, or change the way they perceive odours,’ he said.
‘Some people perceive smells that aren’t there at all.’
He and his team have been studying 71 people suffering from smell disorders. The group reported how their lack of smell as impacted on their mental wellbeing, ability to hold down relationships and physical health.
What causes anosmia?
It’s usually caused by a swelling or blockage that stops the nose from receiving smells, but it can also be a result of broken signals between the nose and brain.
Professor Philpott said: ‘There are many causes – from infections and injury to neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s and as a side effect of some medications.
‘Most patients suffer a loss of flavour perception which can affect appetite and can be made even worse if distortions in their sense of smell also co-exist.
‘Previous research has shown that people who have lost their sense of smell also report high rates of depression, anxiety, isolation and relationship difficulties.’
Temporary loss of smell causes:
- sinus infection
- colds and flu
Anosmia from blockages causes:
- nasal polyps
- nasal bone deformities
Chronic anosmia causes:
- head trauma
- brain tumor
- Huntington’s disease
Entering an emotional void
Think of a time when you were truly happy. Maybe it was when you were a kid on a summer holiday. Maybe it was on your wedding day. Whatever the occasion, the chances are that there’s a smell attached to it – the smell of sun lotion or your partner’s perfume.
Scents can be emotive in a way that other senses aren’t.
But beyond that, not being able to smell your own body or clothes could put you at risk of not staying on top of personal hygiene…which then leads to social isolation.
During his study, Prof Philpott found that parents of young children couldn’t tell when their nappies needed changing, and this led to feelings of failure.
‘One mother found it difficult bonding with her new baby because she couldn’t smell him.’
He also said that many participants described their lack of smell severely impacting on their ability to hold down relationships. People stopped enjoying eating with their partners or having sex.
A study from the Technical Universe of Dresden found that people with a higher sensitivity to smell tend to have more pleasurable sex – and that women with a better sense of smell report having more frequent orgasms during intercourse. So losing your smell senses can have a really detrimental effect on your ability to connect with other people in a number of ways.
Life with no smell – Two experts discus sensory loss
‘Our sense of smell is both life-saving and life-enhancing,’ Prof Philpott explained – pointing out that without it, people run the risk of eating rotten food or staying put during gas leaks.
He pointed to two studies that found that losing your sense of smell is a risk factor for dying younger.
The first took place in Sweden and involved testing the smelling abilities of 1,774 people aged between 40 and 90. 10 years later, 23.2% of them had died and the correlation between poor sense of smell and death was ‘significant’.
The second study tried to predict the 5-year mortality rate in over 3,000 older adults with olfactory dysfunction. It found that the death-rate of those who were anosmic – smell-blind – was four times higher than those with a normal sense of smell.
There could be a number of reasons for that increase. As we’ve said, some folk won’t be able to smell things like gas leaks or burning. But anosmia can also be caused by other things like head trauma, diabetes, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and other chronic diseases and injuries.
The chances are that the people who died in these studies (given that they were all conducted on older populations) also suffered from a condition of which this was just one symptom.
If you can’t smell your food, do you still want to eat it? Most of us would say ‘yes’ but given that smell is the pathway to taste, it’s hard to imagine a world in which all food tastes bland.
Either you lose your appetite because…what’s the point? Or you start eating increasingly unhealthy foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar to make up for a reduced perception of flavour.
The chances are that if you have lost your sense of smell, it’s temporary. But if it doesn’t come back after a week or so, do see your GP and chase up for further investigations.