Losing your sense of smell can mean you miss out on experiences that other people may take for granted, such as the scent of perfumes or cooking. This article looks at anosmia, the medical term for loss of smell, and its causes, symptoms and treatments.
What causes anosmia?
You can be born with anosmia, but there are many things that can cause it throughout life. These include:
- head and nose injuries
- brain tumours and nasal polyps
- viral infections such as hepatitis or influenza
- some chemicals
- some medications
- liver or kidney failure
- vitamin B12 deficiency
- hay fever (allergic rhinitis)
- bronchial asthma
- diseases including Parkinson's disease, multiple sclerosis or Alzheimer's disease
- chronic sinusitis
- cocaine addiction
Anosmia is one of the symptoms of infection with coronavirus (COVID-19).
Some people never find out what caused them to lose their sense of smell.
If you have a cold or flu, your sense of smell will usually come back within a week or 2. Otherwise, it's a unpredictable — in some cases, anosmia can be permanent.
How anosmia affects you
Obviously, if you have anosmia, you can't smell anything. But because the sense of smell is so closely connected to the sense of taste, you may find that food tastes bland. This can really affect your enjoyment of life, particularly if your social and family life revolves around meals. It can also make it hard for you to be bothered to eat and drink.
You might fear that you won't be able to notice a dangerous smell, like gas or smoke. You might worry about eating something that's spoiled. Some people living with anosmia can feel depressed.
See a doctor if you lose your sense of smell. If you feel depressed, speak to your doctor or call Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636.
Your doctor might refer you to an ear, nose and throat specialist. Tell the specialist when and how you think you lost your sense of smell.
The specialist might examine you nose with a medical instrument called an endoscope and ask you to identify different tastes and smells with a test kit. They might ask you to have a computed tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic image resonance (MRI) scan, or have a blood test.
Treatment depends on why you lost your sense of smell. It can involve:
- nasal sprays and steroid pills
- an operation, e.g. to remove nasal polyps
- reducing your exposure to chemicals and other causes
You might get your sense of smell back without treatment, although it might take several weeks or months. Sometimes there is no treatment available.
Avoiding certain chemicals, certain drugs, and not smoking might help prevent you losing your sense of smell.
Also, since anosmia can be one result of sustaining a brain injury, it's yet one more reason to be extra careful when playing dangerous sports, driving, or taking part in similar risky activities.
If you do have anosmia, you can make your environment safer by:
- making sure your smoke alarms are working
- checking that cookers, barbecues and electrical appliances are turned off properly
- reading food expiry dates carefully
Where to get help
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: June 2020