Dear Nurse Beth,
When I was in my teens, I suffered a concussion and since then I have not had a sense of smell. While many people have told me nursing is great field for someone who can't smell (since you're bound to encounter tons of bad smells along the way...), I've been getting worried that it might hinder me from performing well (i.e. recognizing foul odors from a wound), or that it might limit my options as to where I can work. Is this something I need to let my clinical instructors and professors and/or my future employers know about? Do you feel this will limit me in any way?
Congrats on your recovery and readiness to embark on a career.
It's true you will be missing some olfactory cues.
Some organisms have distinctive odors but there are generally many other clues to a patient’s condition. For example, it is not necessary to recognize the distinctive smell of a GI bleed to identify a GI bleed. Likewise, you will recognize an infected wound by the appearance.
I can think of only one time when odor was the only abnormal observation. Years ago, I had a patient in ICU with a foul odor. I washed her and changed her linen, and the odor persisted. I cleaned the entire room. Still kept getting whiffs of odor. Finally towards the end of my shift, I thought to do a vaginal exam, gloved up, and discovered the problem- a hard, entrenched foreign object. I called her doctor, who called in a gyn consult. They were unable to remove the object (turns out it was a vase) at bedside, and by the time I went home, they were taking her to surgery.
I’m using the example to show how highly unusual it is to have no other clues but an odor, and I wouldn’t base a career decision on one such event.
If a job description does not specify sense of smell as a qualification, I would not volunteer the information as it’s not required for the job. Many nurses have allergies that impede their sense of smell. Others may be hard of hearing but have found ways to compensate.
To answer your question “Do you feel it will limit me in any way?”- yes, it is a limitation but not a deal-breaker, depending on how badly you want to succeed and your willingness to work around your limitation. For example, you could always ask a colleague to help you assess for odor if needed. Detecting an odor is not likely to constitute an emergency situation.
I'd like to hear what the community of nurses here has to say to help you make your decision.
Author, "Your Last Nursing Class: How to Land Your First Nursing Job"...and your next!