Smell and taste are often referred to as a pair because they are closely interlinked. The majority of what we think is our taste sensation is actually from our sense of smell.
We don't think of ourselves as being particularly good at sniffing things out, especially when compared with other mammals, such as man's best friend. But research has shown that smell can have a powerful influence on human memories and feelings. People who can no longer smell - following an accident or illness - report a strong sense of loss, with impacts on their lives they could never have imagined. Perhaps we don't rank smell very highly among our senses because it's hard to appreciate what it does for us - until it's gone.
How do these senses work?
Our sense of taste is powered by taste receptors found in the taste buds on our tongues and also in our mouths. The information they collect is sent to the brain.
However, the smell of food also hugely influences how we taste. The chef Heston Blumenthal often has atomisers on the tables in his restaurants. The people eating there are asked to spray them over the table as they will enhance the taste of what they are eating.
Learn more about how we smell and taste.
What are smell and taste disorders?
5 out of 100 people have a problem with taste or smell. Many people have experienced 'losing' their sense of smell and taste when they have a rotten cold, but there are other changes that can occur to these senses too.
You might find that some smells are different to what you're expecting. This is called parosmia. Another problem - where you think a smell is there when it isn't - is called phantosmia. People often think they have a taste disorder when really the problem is with their smell, because the two are so closely linked. Taste disorders are rare.
What causes them?
There are many different causes of smell and taste problems. The most common causes of temporary loss are colds, flu and sinus problems. You can also be born with a smell disorder, usually because of a faulty gene. The sense of smell also naturally decreases with age and this can affect an older person's appetite. No cause is found in 1 out of 5 people who have lost their sense of smell.
Read more about what causes smell and taste problems.
Changes in smell and taste that you have with colds are only temporary and these senses should generally return within a few days, or weeks at the most. If you think you're not improving and your cold has long gone, you should make an appointment with your GP.
What tests might I need?
Your GP will ask you questions and examine you to try to decide whether you need to see a consultant. If you are referred to the ear, nose and throat (ENT) clinic you may have a small camera passed into the nose. This allows a good look around.
Learn about other tests used to diagnose smell and taste problems.
How are they treated?
This very much depends on what has caused the problem in the first place but may include:
- Stopping or changing medicines that contribute to the problem.
- Correction of the underlying medical problem.
- Surgical removal of obstructions that may be causing the disorder.
- Quitting smoking.
Will I get better?
This really depends on what has caused the problem in the first place. There are also differences between people - for instance, some people quickly get their sense of smell back after a cold, whilst others have longer-term or even permanent changes to their sense of smell.
When a head injury damages the nerves responsible for smell (or the brain where the signal is received), sometimes the damage can repair itself. If age is the cause of the problem, unfortunately there is less ability to repair damaged smell receptors and you may be stuck with it.
Are there any tips for living with it?
Not being able to enjoy your food is a pretty big deal for a lot of people. Not surprisingly then if this pleasure is lost permanently, they can become very low or depressed. You also need to consider your safety, as your sense of smell protects you more than you may realise.
Fifth Sense is a UK-based charity that supports people affected by smell and taste disorders across the world.
Learn more about how losing your sense of smell may affect you.
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Disclaimer: This article is for information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions. Patient Platform Limited has used all reasonable care in compiling the information but make no warranty as to its accuracy. Consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions. For details see our conditions.