What it’s like to live without a sense of smell

Imagine living life without experiencing the aroma of food cooking, the scent of your favourite perfume or even those noxious odours that make you screw your nose up.

This is what living with anosmia – a condition that leaves you without a sense of smell – is like.

Here are five things to know about this condition:

1. Anosmia has several causes

There are a few different causes of anosmia.

Rhinologist Professor Richard Harvey says it can sometimes occur after viral inflammation such as a bad cold.

It can also be due to inflammatory sinus disease, ageing, exposure to a harmful agent, or compound or degenerative brain conditions such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease.

Some are born with congenital anosmia, which means they have no sense of smell from birth.

2. Anosmia is not always permanent

Some causes of anosmia, such as ageing or dementia, are irreversible.

However if caused by a one-time traumatic injury to the nose such as viral inflammation or exposure to noxious substances, a person’s sense of smell can sometimes return on its own.

If it doesn’t, and depending on the severity of the damage, it can sometimes be aided by taking medication and undergoing smell retraining therapy.

3. If you have anosmia, you can’t taste a thing

One of the significant side effects of anosmia is the inability to enjoy food because you lose your ability to detect flavour in what you’re eating.

“About 70 to 80 per cent of flavour is smell,” says Prof Harvey, of the UNSW and Macquarie University.

“That’s why people often feel like they lose the flavour and taste of foods when they have a cold, because it’s their sense of smell they’ve lost.”

Apart from the lack of food enjoyment, one of the hazards that can come from this is that a person will not know if food has gone bad.

While it’s easy to see if something looks spoiled, it’s often subtle changes in flavour such as detecting milk that’s gone sour where anosmics will struggle.

4. You rely on your other senses more

While your other senses don’t get stronger to compensate for the loss of smell, Prof Harvey says that people with anosmia will tend to increase their use of other senses.

For example, because they’re unable to smell food that’s on their plate, an anosmic will end up using sight and taking in what’s in front of them, and the texture of the food, to help them appreciate their meal.

Often seeing a particular food can even help trigger a memory of its flavour.

5. Anosmia is thought to be a predictor of death

A study found that the biggest predictor of death in the next five years for older adults aged between 57 to 85 years was an unexplained loss of smell.

“It’s the canary in the coal mine. It’s a sign that cellular repair and cell turnover has stopped and that things are on the decline,” says Prof Harvey.

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Written by Tania Gomez