Most of us have experienced a temporary loss of smell with a cold or sinus allergies. It’s a foreign and uncomfortable sensation, but for the most part- short-lived. All we are left with is the realization of how our sense of smell is taken for granted. But for some, anosmia (loss of smell) can last for longer periods of time, or even permanently. A new study sheds light on the severe impact anosmia can have on our overall well-being.
Anosmia is the temporary, or permanent, loss of your sense of smell. It affects millions of Americans each year and up to 20% of the population. According to the National Institute on Deaf and Other Communication Disorders, almost 1 to 4 persons in the U.S. experience a change in their ability to smell. Since your sense of smell is directly related to your ability to taste, anosmia commonly leads to a loss in your sense of taste as well.
What Is Known
Through previous research, we know a loss in sense of taste can lead to a decreased appetite and high rates of depression, anxiety and isolation. Researchers at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical Center wanted to learn more about the life-altering impacts losing your ability to smell has on overall physical and emotional health.
Researchers conducted a qualitative study, with 71 participants aged 31-80, who were seeking support from a clinic specializing in smell and taste disorders. The team analyzed participants' written personal accounts of what it was like living with a smell disorder. The study shows people with smell disorders can experience a wide range of issues that disrupt everyday life.
Common Themes Emerge
Researchers identified several common themes when studying the lived experience described by each participant. Let’s take a closer look at the findings.
Impact on Safety
Some participants reported a serious injury “near miss” from not being able to pick up on warning smells. Study researcher, Professor Carl Philpot, explains “one really big problem was around hazard perception- not being able to smell food that had gone off, or not being able to smell gas or smoke”.
Impact on Nutrition
Loss of appetite and weight loss was another theme identified by researchers. Some participants experienced weight gain from eating less nutritious foods that were high in fat, salt and sugar. The impact of anosmia also extended beyond nutrition. Participants reported both social and emotional ramifications, such as
No longer enjoyed eating
Lost interest in preparing food
Embarrassed to serve food to family and friends
Impact on Memory Recall
Certain smells are often linked to happy memories. Memories may often be associated with people, places or emotional experiences. Without the ability to smell, participants reported missing the memory link connection. Examples include:
An aroma that reminds you of a favorite holiday
The scent of a baby
Smelling perfume worn by a loved one who has passed
A scent that brings emotional comfort, such as lavender
Impact on Relationships
Many participants felt relationships were negatively impacted, including sexual relationships. Negative emotions were described as a result of lost socialization or intimacy. Reported emotions include:
Imagine not being able to smell yourself to pick up on cues of a hygiene issue? This was a source of anxiety and embarrassment for study participants. One mother described feeling like a failure because she couldn’t tell when her baby’s diaper needed to be changed.
What Causes Anosmia?
There are many reasons why someone experiences a loss of smell, ranging from physical conditions to certain medications. A common cause is irritation of your nose lining or blockage of nasal passages. Your ability to smell can also be altered due to neurological conditions, including certain medical diagnoses. For a comprehensive look at anosmia causes, visit Mayo Clinic: Loss of Smell.
What Nurses Can Do
Participants didn't feel like their healthcare team understood the impact anosmia had on their overall wellbeing. In fact, many described frustrating and unhelpful interactions with care providers. The researchers hope the study findings will improve understanding within the medical community.
Want to Learn More?
Check out the University of East Anglia's Press Release.
Video - Living Without Smell
Are you living with a loss of smell?
What can you share to help nurses better understand the condition?