What Causes a Loss of Smell and What You Can Do About It

Stop to smell the cumin (and the cinnamon, peppermint, and even the roses, too)

smell the roses

Your sense of smell is a huge com­po­nent of over­all health.  Unfor­tu­nate­ly, up to one-quar­ter of peo­ple over age 50 have some loss of smell (called olfac­tion in med­ical lin­go.)  Sur­pris­ing­ly, many peo­ple who have a dimin­ished sense of smell aren’t con­scious­ly aware of it, even though it can have a pro­found impact on health and qual­i­ty of life.

Four common ways you can lose your sense of smell:

  • Dis­eases or infec­tions of the nose and sinus cav­i­ties
  • Expo­sure to tox­ic sub­stances or heavy met­als such as cad­mi­um
  • Head trau­ma – this is the most com­mon cause of olfac­to­ry loss in younger peo­ple and typ­i­cal­ly leads to a more sig­nif­i­cant degree of loss than oth­er caus­es.
  • Side effects of med­ica­tion.  This is not com­mon, but drugs for blood pres­sure reg­u­la­tion, amphet­a­mines, antipsy­chotics, anti­his­t­a­mines, and oth­er drugs have been linked to a loss of smell.

Problems from loss of olfaction:

  • Your sense of smell con­tributes to your enjoy­ment of food; with­out it, you’re like­ly to have a dimin­ished appetite.
  • Poten­tial nutri­ent defi­cien­cy.  In addi­tion to hav­ing your over­all appetite suf­fer, you may find your­self sub­lim­i­nal­ly mak­ing dif­fer­ent food choic­es.  Peo­ple with olfac­to­ry loss tend to choose foods high­er in sug­ar, for instance.
  • Dan­ger of being exposed to nox­ious vapors with­out real­iz­ing it
  • Loss of an impor­tant, though lit­tle-under­stood means of inter­per­son­al com­mu­ni­ca­tion
  • Mood changes and depres­sion

If you’ve expe­ri­enced head trau­ma, loss of smell is one of the most com­mon effects.  Loss of smell can per­sist even when oth­er symp­toms have sub­sided.  That’s why test­ing the sense of smell should always be part of the eval­u­a­tion of head trau­ma.

Loss of smell is also an ear­ly mark­er for cog­ni­tive changes asso­ci­at­ed with Alzheimer’s dis­ease and Parkinson’s.

You can test your sense of smell at home.

It’s almost (not quite) as good as the test you can get in your doctor’s office.  Here’s how to test your­self:

  • Go to your spice cab­i­net and choose 4–6 dif­fer­ent spices or oth­er fla­vors.
  • Place a small amount of each at the bot­tom of its own juice glass.
  • Blind­fold your­self and scram­ble the glass­es around.
  • Bring the juice glass­es up to your nose one at a time and see if you can iden­ti­fy their scents.
  • If you have any ques­tion about your range of smell-abil­i­ty, have a fam­i­ly mem­ber or friend try the same test so you can com­pare results.

Is there effective treatment for loss of olfaction?

If you’ve lost your sense of smell because of a sinus dis­ease or infec­tion, you may be in luck.  The under­ly­ing con­di­tion may be treat­able, and you can expect your sense of smell to return once it’s been resolved.

If your loss of smell is from head trau­ma or anoth­er cause, the med­ical mod­el con­sid­ers the loss of smell to be untreat­able.  How­ev­er, I wouldn’t give up quite so quick­ly.  We know sci­en­tif­i­cal­ly that we don’t know the lim­its of the body’s heal­ing poten­tial if it’s giv­en the right con­di­tions to work with.

In my office, I use cran­iosacral ther­a­py as part of the treat­ment plan for patients with head trau­ma.  Cran­iosacral ther­a­py works via a mech­a­nism that is poor­ly under­stood and is vir­tu­al­ly unrec­og­nized with­in our cur­rent med­ical mod­el.  How­ev­er, if head trau­ma has dam­aged the nerves that run from your nose back into your brain, cran­iosacral ther­a­py may be able to assist your body in the heal­ing of those nerve path­ways.

This treat­ment, though it would be con­sid­ered uncon­ven­tion­al, is extreme­ly gen­tle and vir­tu­al­ly free of neg­a­tive side-effects.  A ther­a­peu­tic tri­al might be worth­while since it’s easy to deter­mine if the treat­ment is help­ing you or not.

Per­haps you can join the many oth­er patients who have ben­e­fit­ed from cran­iosacral ther­a­py.


About Ronald Lavine, D.C.

Dr. Lavine has more than thirty years' experience helping patients alleviate pain and restore health using diverse, scientifically-based manual therapy and therapeutic exercise and alignment methods.

His website, askdrlavine.com, provides more information about his approach.

Please contact him at drlavine@yourbodyofknowledge.com or at 212-400-9663.

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