Anosmia, as defined by various dictionaries, is the loss, absence, lack or impairment of the sense of smell. However, these definitions don’t really explain what an anosmic feels or experiences every day. Personally, I define it as being “deaf in the nose.” As a congenital anosmic, who has never smelled anything, I can attest to the fact that not being able to smell goes far beyond just “not being able to smell,” the way a non-anosmic person with stuffy nose feels. It also means having no concept of smell or what it is to smell, and not understanding the role smells play in the lives of people who can smell.
Anosmia often regarded as a trivial problem from a medical standpoint, and is therefore not very well researched or understood. According to the Mayo Clinic and the Anosmia Foundation, anosmia can be caused by a number of triggers, including genetics, brain injury, olfactory nerve injury, Kallmann Syndrome, drug use or nasal polyps. Anosmia can be temporary or permanent, partial or full. If anosmia is caused by an outside trigger, such as drug use, smoking or a cold, it can often be reversed (with surgery, drugs or therapy) or reverses itself with time. However, for congenital anosmia, there is no known cure. A recent study (summarized in Science Daily) conducted by Dr. Robert Henkin of the Taste & Smell Clinic in Washington, DC, suggests that a common asthma medication may help, but it is by no means a guaranteed solution.
Obviously, the main effect of anosmia is the lack of sense of smell. For someone with sudden onset anosmia, that can create a whole host of problems, mostly having to do with loss of taste, but also with loss of libido, depression and more. Those who have a sense of smell depend heavily on it when tasting food, and when it is suddenly gone everything tastes the same. However, congenital anosmics (like myself) rarely complain about their sense of taste. Left to their own devices, our taste buds compensate for the lack of olfactory input and allow us to taste “normally.” However, anosmics may have trouble distinguishing flavors that are largely scent based, like herbs (I know I do). Depending on the degree of anosmia and the sensitivity of their taste buds, anosmics may also rely on texture, temperature and other outside factors to influence their sense of taste. Anosmia can be dangerous, too, in that anosmics cannot smell dangers like fire, gas leaks, smoke or spoiled food.
There is much, much more to anosmia than not being able to smell. I can’t even imagine being able to smell, which is a difficult concept to describe to the “olfactorally gifted.” I don’t understand what “bad” smells are. Oftentimes, a friend will mention how good a particular food smells and I will say “Food X has a smell?” It simply doesn’t occur to me that it would. I also don’t understand how people can distinguish the different smells of similar things – for instance, chicken and turkey. I frequently encounter people who simply don’t believe that I can’t smell anything – that is, until they pass gas in my presence. For this reason, I often refer to my anosmia as my superpower – stinky chores, farts and skunks don’t faze me.
Anosmia: Support and Information
Despite the dangers of not being able to smell, anosmia really is a minor affliction – in my opinion, it’s much more comparable to colorblindness than complete blindness or deafness. However, those with anosmia (especially those with sudden onset anosmia) may want to seek medical attention. There are several excellent clinics that deal with sense of smell issues throughout the United States, and a terrific forum for anosmics at www.anosmia.net, where those without a sense of smell can share their stories and get support and advice.
Science Daily, April 9, 2008: “For some who have lost their sense of smell, a once popular asthma drug could help”
Anosmia Foundation: www.anosmiafoundation.org
Ask a Children’s Health Specialist: Anosmia, The Mayo Clinic
The Taste and Smell Clinic, Washington, DC
Claire Heald, BBC News, December 27, 2006: “Sense and scent ability”