Coping with changes in taste and smell

Created date

November 29th, 2019
Sweet and savory breakfast items alike are spread out on a pink table cloth.

Sweet and savory breakfast items alike are spread out on a pink table cloth. 

Your senses of taste and smell are closely linked. Your sense of taste involves only the sensations of saltiness, sweetness, sourness, and bitterness, while your sense of smell contributes to your perceptions of flavor. 

Sometimes what seems like a problem with taste is actually a problem with smell.

Many health problems cause changes

As with many other systems in the body, both senses are susceptible to changes as you get older. “The nerves in your nose, nasopharynx, mouth, and tongue can become less sensitive to stimuli,” says Jennifer Tam, M.D., medical director at Linden Ponds, an Erickson Living community in Hingham, Mass. 

Certain health problems can lead to a decreased sense of smell or taste. “The inflammation and drainage associated with recurrent sinus infections or upper respiratory infections will make it difficult to smell,” Tam says. “Tumors, polyps, gum disease, a previous head injury, or surgery may also affect smell or taste.”

Conditions affecting the brain, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, are associated with changes in senses. “Some studies suggest that a loss of smell may be an early sign of Parkinson’s disease,” Tam says.

Less commonly, deficiencies in certain nutrients have been associated with problems smelling or tasting. “A lack of vitamin B12 or a zinc deficiency may be a contributing factor,” Tam says. “But do not assume you have a vitamin or mineral deficiency or take supplements without talking to your doctor first.”

Medications

Medications can also have side effects that lead to problems. “Common culprits are blood pressure medications like beta-blockers or calcium channel blockers,” Tam says, “as are antibiotics, including doxycycline and ciprofloxacin.”

A lack of saliva is directly related to a reduced sense of taste, and many medications have dry mouth as a side effect.

Safety issues

“Impairment in your sense of smell or taste can cause you to eat too much or too little, or cause you to overseason your food with salt or sugar,” Tam says. “This can affect your overall health. Use herbs if you want to add flavor.”

Losing your sense of smell can be dangerous because of an inability to detect spoiled food or the odor of noxious gases or smoke. Periodically check your smoke detectors to make sure they work. Visual gas detectors can be helpful too. 

Getting help

“You should see your regular doctor first,” Tam says. “Underlying health problems need to be ruled out, and your medications should be evaluated to see if there can be adjustments.”

You may need to see a specialist. “A standard test we use for people with a loss of smell is a lengthy scratch and sniff test,” says Alexander Farag, M.D., a head and neck surgeon and rhinologist in the department of otolaryngology at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio. “During the test, patients scratch and sniff while completing a smell identification questionnaire.”

Some people can actually learn to smell again. “We’ve had patients who have succeeded with a process called olfactory retraining,” Farag says. “It’s a time-intensive therapy that, when combined with medication, is shown to improve the sense of smell. As part of the retraining, patients receive different vials and smell them for several times during the day over a period of two to three months.”

Don’t discount a loss of smell and taste as unimportant. “It can definitely diminish your quality of life,” Farag says. “The ability to smell and taste helps us enjoy life and keeps us safe.”

Did you know?

Along with salt, sweet, sour, and bitter, some people identify a fifth taste sensation called umami (savory, rich, and meaty).

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