Anosmia: is there life without smell?

Saturday, 31 July, 2010

Anosmia is the incapacity to perceive smells. It can be temporary or permanent. The word hiposmia refers to the decrease of the ability to perceive smells, while hiperosmia is a superior olfactory ability. There are also partial anosmias, when a person is not capable to perceive a particular smell, and they are often related to concrete substances: those are the so-called ‘specific anosmias’, and can have a genetic origin.

The loss of the sense of smell highlights its value. One of the consequences of anosmia, especially when it happens suddenly, is that food is perceived as less inviting, and in the long-term this problem can turn into a nutritious issue. Indeed, when we eat or drink, we taste food and beverages by means of the senses of taste and smell. Thus, a patient of anosmia will not be able to taste what they eat and drink, losing the feeling of pleasure that the food or drink generate. They have the impression that all the food is insipid and dull, or that everything has the same taste. Furthermore, anosmia can be dangerous, because it does not allow detecting danger signals, like a gas leakage, a fire or a spoiled food.

The lack of knowledge about the sense of smell in a society that focuses mainly on sight and hearing, undervaluing smell, results often on incomprehension about people suffering anosmia. This can end on less help and medical attention than for blind or deaf people.

The loss of the sense of smell can also result in serious emotional consequences for the person that suffers it. The incapacity to enjoy smells with affective value, such as the forest smell, the beloved people, the home, or even one’s own smell, can result on feelings of loss and depression. Anosmia can also reduce sexual desire, since some smells can contribute to increase it.

A very dry air can produce a temporary decrease of the smell capacity as a result of the dryness of the olfactory mucosa. This can happen in the event of certain microclimates or in the environments with too strong use of air conditioning. Moreover, a nasal congestion or an infection can also result in a temporary loss of the sense of smell.

Permanent anosmia affects a 2% of human population, a percentage similar to the population suffering blindness or deafness. Congenital anosmia is a result of the lack of development of olfactory fibers because of genetic factors. Traumatic anosmia is caused by an accident that affects the brain areas that process the sense of smell. Nasal sprays with vasoconstriction effects can cause a permanent loss of the sense of smell, so they always must be used with a lot care, only when they are indispensable and only for a short time. Anosmia can also be produced by nasal polyps, which can also be related to allergies or sinusitis.

One of the inconveniences of losing the sense of smell is the difficulty to detect it ‘objectively’. Ann Gottlieb, famous international fragrance designer, mentioned that she cannot contract insurances for her sense of smell because ‘it is not possible to objectively prove the loss of smell’. In other words, only she could perceive this loss. Indeed, anosmia is a disease ‘subjective’ and ‘auto-detectable’. Patients with congenital anosmia, which did not smell since they were born, this disease can only be detected when they are around ten years old. At this age, they start being aware about their different perception compared to other people, and they tell their parents or caregivers.

In our society, the sense of smell is not essential for survival, but it enriches our sensitive and emotional life, and even our social life. People that have lost suddenly their sense of smell they often describe their situation as ‘a feeling of emptiness’. For example, they cannot enjoy a good wine with their friends anymore.

I recently lost my sense of smell due to a temporary, inflammatory anosmia originated by a sinusitis. Fortunately, I am already recovered. For almost a couple of weeks I could not smell anything, and I was worried trying to find out whether this was a temporary or a permanent anosmia. The othorhinolaryngologist did not clarify this point, he only said that we should start a treatment with antibiotics and wait. I realized the lack of information, treatments and help to people affected by anosmia.

Despite the distress I suffered during all this time, since an important part of my job is about smelling, this temporary loss helped me to value a bit more the sense of smell. I used to assume it as just a natural thing; I now consider that the sense of smell is as a special gift that should be treated with care.

For a couple of weeks I could smell not a thing: fragrances, food, sweat, urine, or dirty socks. When I was walking on the street I could not smell the sewers, I could not smell the sea or the rain. When I arrived home I could not smell my daughter, nor my husband, or the smell of my home. I could not smell the ‘children-smell’ in the nursery; I could not detect the smell of my mother when I kissed her. I could not even notice my own smell or the fabric softener in the clean linen. I could not smell the hair of my husband…

What a strange feeling it is living without smells! It is, indeed, a feeling of emptiness, of ‘nothingness’, of an empty page. Malodours, unfortunately so ample in the streets, stopped bothering me. But conversely you cannot enjoy a good strawberry cake because you do not perceive the flavour of strawberries, the vanilla base, nothing. Regarding food, only texture is left, and the taste of sweet, salty, bitter, acid... Everything becomes much less interesting. Eating becomes almost just a survival procedure. It has nothing to do with the pleasure of savouring a fruit or tasting a good wine. I tried to smell something, whatever. I tried with strong kitchen smells like pepper, coffee, garlic... nothing! Nor the fine fragrances of my small collection: not a thing! This persistence of nothingness scared and impressed me. How important the sense of smell is. What a cultural richness it brings to us! How many vital experiences, what a lot of memories and affections… The sense of smell brings us so many intangible things, which are so noteworthy in our day to day life and in our vital history!

I recovered gradually. I remember that the first smell I perceived was a slight fragrance scent of a lady walking in the streed. I stopped completely amazed. I could not identify the fragrance, as I so many times, but this slight smell brought me the hope to smell again. Perceiving the smell of sewers, always so nasty, made me happy this time. And I realized that if smelled carefully I could already perceive a bit of coffee smell, then tea, then more subtle smells came, and in a couple of days I could already smell my fragrances again!

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