While disorders of smell and taste are rarely life threatening, they can affect your ability to enjoy food and drink, appreciate pleasant aromas, or detect noxious chemicals and gases (such as natural gas or chemical leaks), which can have more serious consequences. A disorder of smell or taste may also indicate the presence of other more significant inflammatory or neoplastic diseases of the nose and sinuses.
The olfactory area – located high up in the nose – controls the senses of smell and taste. This is not to be confused with the sensation provided by our taste buds on the surface of tongue, which only determine sour, sweet, salty, and bitter sensations. The olfactory area of the nose distinguishes more complex flavors, such as garlic, oregano, other spices, and wines. Odors from the food enter the nose via the back of the nose, as it makes its transit to the throat before swallowing. In contrast, odors from environmental fumes, like perfumes, enter the nose from the front of the nose.
Sometimes, the front of nose is obstructed from various inflammatory disorders, which prevents environmental odors from entering. However, the back part of the nose is still open to the odors of food in the mouth, so complex flavors of food may still be intact despite the loss of smell. The presence of flavor taste after a loss of smell is a sign that the olfactory area may still be intact. If both are absent, then permanent injury to the olfactory nerve may exist, or there may be severe inflammation (polyps) blocking the entire nose.
Your ability to smell and taste may be affected by:
- Temporary illness: A cold or the flu can cause you to temporarily or permanently lose your smell or taste. This is the most common cause of acute loss of smell in over 80 percent of patients.
- Age: As you age, the number of olfactory nerve fiber in the nose, as well as taste buds on your tongue, decreases, and those that are left become less sensitive over time
- Personal habits: Cigarette smoking, certain medications, and your dental hygiene can adversely affect your ability to smell and taste
- Serious disorders: A number of other disorders can affect smell and taste.
- Hyposmia: a partial loss of smell
- Anosmia: total loss of smell
- Hyperosmia: oversensitivity to smell (as in pregnancy)
- Dysosmia: strong aversion to normal odors
- Hypogeusia: a partial loss of ability to taste
- Ageusia: loss of ability to taste
- Tumors: growths that affect your smell or taste by blocking the olfactory area or destroying the smell and taste area of your nose
- Seizures: may cause a brief, false sensation of vivid, unpleasant odors – known as “olfactory hallucinations”
Your doctor will conduct a thorough physical examination, and collect a health history to understand your problems with smelling and/or tasting.
Your ENT doctor will assess your ability to sense common odors using simple, in-office tests. A nationally recognized and standardized scratch and sniff test checks your sense of smell for 40 common odors. Based on your multiple choice selections, your test is scored, determining the presence and severity of your loss of smell, based on data from other people your age with a normal smelling ability.
A nasal endoscopy will be performed to determine if intranasal inflammation (due to allergic rhinitis, chronic sinusitis, or polyps), or tumors, may be the source of the loss of smell.
A computed tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) of your head – including your sinuses – may be ordered to check for structural abnormalities, inflammation, or tumors obstructing or destroying the olfactory nerve fibers in the nose or intracranially (in the head).
If your ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist believes that an infection has caused your smell or taste disorder, he or she may prescribe antibiotic medication to fight that infection.
Vitamins or Supplements
Certain smell and taste disorders can be caused by certain medical conditions. Your ENT doctor may recommend you see a specialist or prescribe specific medication for your problem.
Your ENT doctor will recommend that you quit smoking, which can adversely affect your ability to smell and taste.
If you regularly use certain medications – such as antihistamines or the antidepressant amitriptyline – you may have a reduced ability to taste. Your ENT doctor may assess how these (and other) medications you are currently taking could be affecting your senses of smell and taste.
Gingivitis, or inflammation of the gums, can affect your ability to taste normally. You will need to address any dental problems you have, and work to improve your dental hygiene habits.
Sinusitis and Surgery
Sinusitis can affect the sense of smell and taste. Also, prior history of radiation therapy to the throat or nasal passages, chemotherapy, or surgery in the nose, can temporarily or permanently affect the sense of smell.
Why Choose UHealth?
World-class care in an academic health system. We are recognized throughout South Florida and the world as a leader in treating conditions and disorders of the ear, nose, and throat. Backed by one of the nation’s top universities, our team uses the latest technologies and research-driven expertise to provide you with superior, personalized care and the best outcomes.
Leaders in rhinology research and innovation. Our team of rhinologists are actively involved in research looking at a variety of unique clinical treatments for the loss of smell and taste. Researchers are actively investigating the role of olfactory stem cells in the sense of smell and taste, and their potential use in regenerating injured olfactory nerves. This research is being pursued in our multidisciplinary Stem Cell Institute.
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