Living without a sense of smell

Created date

March 23rd, 2020
A cartoon image of a nose.

Losing your sense of smell may not seem as serious as losing other senses—especially sight and hearing. But researchers from the U.K. have found that loss of smell may affect people in more ways than previously thought. 

According to the National Institutes of Health, about 2% of people in the U.S. have difficulty with their sense of smell.  The problem becomes much more prevalent with age. In one study, about 25% of men and 11% of women 60 to 69 years of age had a problem with smell.

There can be many causes of smell disorders, including infections, injuries, medication side effects, and neurological conditions (such as dementia-related illness). 

Effect on taste

One of the most well-known effects of having difficulty with smell is the associated loss of taste. This can lead to appetite loss and malnutrition. In the current study, researchers from the University of East Anglia wanted to find out other ways people’s lives were affected when they couldn’t experience smell. They collected information from people 31 to 80 years of age with smell disorders. 

They discovered a range of problems. Some people lost interest in preparing food or dining with others, which affected their family and social lives. There were concerns among respondents about food safety and the inability to detect spoilage, and also concerns about general hazard perception, such as the inability to detect gas, smoke, or other noxious odors.

People with problems smelling reported practical concerns about personal hygiene, which affected personal relationships. They also expressed difficulty experiencing happy memories that certain smells can evoke—such as smells associated with holidays and changes of seasons.

These results help to explain results of other studies, which have found a high rate of depression, anxiety, and relationship difficulties among people with smell disorders.

The researchers hope that their results will help health care professionals understand the range of emotional and practical impacts caused by a loss of smell, and make it easier for people with smell disorders get the help and support they need.