A Moment of Science

Anosmia

Anosmia, the term for the lack of a sense of smell, affects over two million Americans. Learn more on this Moment of Science.

Freshly baked cookies

Photo: ...Rachel J... (flickr)

A person with permanent anosmia would not be able to smell freshly baked cookies like these, possibly resulting in depression or grief

If you’ve ever found yourself in a particularly foul-smelling situation, the idea of losing your sense of smell may not sound so bad.

However, having no sense of smell can have serious effects on a person’s health and safety. Anosmia, the term for the lack of a sense of smell, affects over two million Americans.

The importance of smell becomes clear when you consider the role it plays in detection of hazards such as gas leaks, fires, or spoiled food.

Sense of smell is tightly linked to perception of taste and flavor. Many people who lose their sense of smell abruptly find that foods seem bland and unappetizing, although people that are anosmic since birth rarely complain of this problem.

Smells are often associated with pleasant memories, such as fresh cut grass, baking cookies and the familiar smells of loved ones. The inability to smell these things can result in feelings of depression or grief. People with anosmia can sometimes become withdrawn or anxious because they are never sure if they or their homes smell bad.

Temporary anosmia can be caused by a simple stuffy nose or sinus infection, while permanent anosmia has many causes. Congenital anosmia usually results from genetic factors.

Common causes for loss of smell later in life are traumatic brain injury, exposure to certain chemicals, nasal polyps, and smoking. Some research suggests that anosmia may be an early warning sign of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases, although the link has not been proven.

Currently, there are several treatments that have been partially successful. As doctors and scientists learn more about the causes and symptoms of anosmia, the range and effectiveness of treatments will hopefully increase.

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