For most of our lives, we tend to take our sense of smell for granted since it usually isn't something that requires any conscious effort. While smell does allow us to distinguish between pleasant and vile aromas, is it really useful? Actually it is, since it helps to alert us of potential dangers in many different situations, such as milk that has gone bad (even though it may still look fine) or a fire that may not be immediately visible. At the high end of our noses, there is an area of tissue that is lined with many special cells that communicate directly with our brains. Certain molecules in the air stimulate these smell receptors. When this information is transmitted to the brain, it interprets the information to determine what the smell is. Up to 2 percent of the North American population typically suffer from various smell disorders, and it is usually more prominent in males and seniors.
What are smell disorders?
When we are sick with a stuffy nose, it is near impossible to make out any smells since the molecules in the air cannot reach the smell receptors. In a similar way, when a person has a smell disorder, they cannot detect smells as clearly or at all. In some cases, a smell is interpreted in a completely different manner that it normally would be, so that pleasing smells may seem awful. In other cases, people might imagine a smell that is not present at all.
What causes smell disorders?
Injuries or infections of the nose and sinuses are some of the most common causes of smell disorders. However, it doesn't just end there. Sustaining an injury to the front area of the head can also affect how well people are able to smell. A change in the hormone levels, such as in pregnant women, can dramatically alter the sense of smell, while consuming some types of medications or being exposed to some insecticides can decrease the sense of smell. As mentioned earlier, aging, as well as some diseases associated with aging such as Alzheimer's, can also have a negative effect on how well we can smell. A temporary factor that reduces the ability to smell is smoking. However, many people have found that by quitting smoking, they regain their sense of smell and taste.
How are smell disorders diagnosed?
An ENT specialist, also known as an otolaryngologist, can help diagnose smell disorders through a series of tests. They typically ask patients to identify a series of smells at various strengths and also examine the sinus system to check for any abnormalities. This is usually accompanied by an assessment of the patient's health record, medication consumption and exposure to chemicals.
Are smell disorders serious?
Smell disorders can pose a serious deficiency, since it reduces our ability to sense possible dangers. Since smell is so closely tied to our sense of taste, the lack of smell usually results in a reduced sense of taste as well. This can affect a person's eating behaviors and lead to various mental or physical health complications. Sometimes a smell disorder can also signify a more serious disease or health issue, such as Parkinson's or diabetes.
Can smell disorders be treated?
In some very rare cases, people are born with a smell disorder that is difficult to cure. However, others who develop such a disorder later on in life can seek help to recover their sense of smell or find ways to become accustomed to it. The first step is to visit an otolaryngologist so that they can pinpoint the exact cause of the smell disorder and how advanced it is. Issues such as nasal polyps can be corrected with surgery. Alternatively, some medications may help to improve the patient's sense of smell. Sometimes patients also find that their sense of smell returns on its own, without having to do anything to treat it.
What can I do if I think I have a smell disorder?
A consultation with an otolaryngologist (perhaps following a visit to a general physician) is the best way to start treating a smell disorder. Once the doctor has properly identified the root of the smell disorder, they can then prescribe appropriate medication or other treatments.