Losing Your Sense of Smell

Many older people are not even aware that they have a problem with their sense of smell because the changes occur gradually over several years. They may not even notice that they are experiencing a loss of smell until there is an incident in which they don’t detect food that has spoiled or the presence of dangerous smoke.

When smell is impaired, people may find food less enjoyable because they have a harder time appreciating its subtle flavors. Some older people change their eating habits. Some may eat too much or eat too little. Loss of smell may also cause someone to eat too much sugar or salt to make the food taste better. This can be a problem for people with certain medical conditions, such as diabetes or high blood pressure.

Most people who have a problem with smell have recently had an illness or injury. The most common causes are upper respiratory infections, such as the common cold, and chronic sinus or nasal disease. Other common causes are aging; smoking; nasal polyps; head injury; hormonal disturbances; dental problems; exposure to chemicals such as insecticides or solvents. The disorder may also be caused by medications such as antibiotics or antihistamines; radiation treatment for cancer; and nervous-system disorders such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.

Depending on the cause of your smell disorder, your doctor may be able to treat your problem or suggest ways to cope with it. If a certain medication is the cause of the disorder, ask your doctor if you could substitute other medications or reduce the dose. Your doctor will work with you to get the medicine you need while trying to reduce unwanted side effects.

Some patients with respiratory infections or allergies regain their sense of smell when the illness or condition is over. Often, correcting a general medical problem also can restore the sense of smell.

For patients with nasal obstructions, such as polyps, or other inflammatory conditions of the nose or sinuses, medical treatments or surgery can restore the sense of smell. Occasionally, the sense of smell returns to normal on its own, without any treatment.

Your doctor may suggest oral steroid medications such as prednisone, which is usually used for a short period of time, or topical steroid sprays, which can be used for longer periods of time. Antibiotics are also used to treat nasal infections. The effectiveness of both steroids and antibiotics depends greatly on the severity and duration of the nasal swelling or infection. Often relief is temporary.

If you do not regain your sense of smell, there are things you should do to ensure your safety. Take extra precautions to avoid eating food that may have spoiled. If you live with other people, ask them to smell the food to make sure it is fresh. People who live alone should discard food if there is a chance it is spoiled. Other home safety measures include installing smoke alarms and gas detectors.

For those who wish to have additional help, there may be support groups in your area. These are often associated with smell and taste clinics in medical school hospitals. Some online bulletin boards also allow people with smell disorders to share their experiences. Not all people with smell disorders will regain their sense of smell, but most can learn to live with it.

Reprinted from nihseniorhealth.gov.

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