Watch the video above as Jing Shen, MD explains Smell Disfunction
You probably take your sense of smell for granted, but do you ever wonder what it would be like if you had a loss of sense of smell? A total loss of smell is known as anosmia. When you don't have a sense of smell, your food will taste different, you won't be able to smell flowers — and you may even find yourself in dangerous circumstances unknowingly (i.e. gas leaks).
Below we go over how your sense of smell works, the impacts of a loss of sense of smell, and if sinus infections can cause a loss of sense of smell.
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Taste and smell disorders are the cause of many thousands of individuals in the U.S. to see a doctor every year. Fortunately, for most individuals, anosmia is only a temporary problem caused by a seriously stuffy nose from a cold. After the cold goes away, their sense of smell comes back.
However, for some individuals, including many seniors, anosmia is persistent and it could indicate a more serious health condition.
Like your sense of taste, your sense of smell is a part of your chemical senses (chemosensory system). You have the ability to smell due to olfactory sensory neurons (specialized sensory cells). Each olfactory neuron has an odor receptor. Substances around you release microscopic molecules — whether the substances are pine trees or coffee brewing. These microscopic molecules stimulate the odor receptors.
Once the molecules are detected by the neurons, the neurons send messages to your brain, identifying the smell. The environment has more smells in it than you have receptors, and one molecule can stimulate a group of receptors which creates a unique representation in your brain. Your brain registers these representations as a specific smell.
There are two pathways in which smells reach your olfactory sensory neurons.
When you chew food, it releases aromas that use the second channel to access the olfactory sensory neurons. If there's a blockage of this channel, like when you have a stuffy nose due to the flu or a cold, odors can't get to the sensory cells the smells stimulate. This results in you losing a lot of your ability to taste the flavor of food. In this manner, your senses of taste and smell work closely together.
What Effects Does a Loss of Sense of Smell Have?
Individuals with anosmia might lose interest in eating and food which could lead to weight loss and malnutrition.
When you have anosmia, you should ensure you have functioning smoke alarms in your home in various locations. You should also be careful with the use of natural gas and with food storage since you might have issues detecting gas leaks and spoiled food.
Some suggested precautions are:
Label all foods with expiration dates properly
Use electric appliances
Read labels on chemicals like insecticides and kitchen cleaners
Is a Loss of Sense of Smell and Sinus Infections Related?
For many infections like upper respiratory infections, it appears the post-infection smell loss is typically temporary because of the olfactory system's phenomenal plasticity. In fact, after an upper respiratory infection, about 32% to 66% of individuals will spontaneously recover their sense of smell.
Sinusitis is where you have swelling of your sinuses, typically caused by an infection. It causes your sinuses to swell and become inflamed, interfering with drainage, causing mucus buildup.
With acute sinusitis, it may be hard for you to breathe through your nose. The space around your face and eyes may feel swollen and you may have a headache or throbbing facial pain. The common cold is usually the cause of acute sinusitis.
Unless you develop a bacterial infection, most cases of acute sinusitis resolve within a week or so and home remedies might be all you need to treat acute sinusitis. Sinusitis lasting over 12 weeks regardless of being treated is referred to as chronic sinusitis. Symptoms of chronic sinusitis include:
A blocked nose
Swelling, tenderness and pain around your eyes, cheeks or forehead
A sinus headache
Yellow or green mucus from your nose
A high temperature
A decreased sense of smell
With chronic sinusitis and decreased sense of smell, inflammation interferes with the ability of your sinuses to drain and is why you experience a loss of your sense of taste and smell.
Air movement in your sinuses usually helps the volatile molecules settle in, providing a brain signal letting you know what it is you're tasting. Therefore, a sinus infection could make your sense of taste dull, even while you still know if something is sweet or salty. However, finer taste nuances such as the flavor of a subtle soufflé or a fine wine could be lost until you unplug your sinuses.
You might have a higher risk of sinusitis if you have:
An abnormality with your nasal passe like nasal polyps, a deviated nasal septum or tumors
Smoke exposure either from smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke
A health condition like an immune system disorder like HIV/AIDS or cystic fibrosis
In a case where your loss of smell is due to sinus disease, the condition can be treated. Topical and oral steroids often offer relief. In some cases, surgery may be needed to decrease the obstruction of odors to your sensory nerve cells. If you have a sinus disease, it generally requires a long-term management approach and it's common to experience fluctuations in your ability to smell.
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Dr. Suchanova is a Diplomate of the American Board of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery and a Fellow of the American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery.
She is fluent in English, Czech, Slovak and conversational in Spanish.