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Anosmia (loss of smell)

3-minute read

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:

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 two. Otherwise, it’s a unpredictable – in some cases, anosmia can be permanent. 

If a person has a partial sense of smell, it’s called hyposmia. Many things – including smoking, a cold or flu, depression, schizophrenia, seasonal affective disorder and ageing – can cause hyposmia.

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 beyondblue on 1300 22 4636.

Anosmia diagnosis

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. They might ask you to have a computed tomography (CT) scan or a magnetic image resonance (MRI) scan, or have a blood test. 

Anosmia treatment

Treatment depends on why you lost your sense of smell. It can involve:

  • nasal sprays and steroid pills
  • antihistamines
  • antibiotics
  • 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.

Anosmia prevention

Avoiding some chemicals and some drugs, and not smoking, might help prevent you losing your sense of smell.

Avoiding dangerous sports, like horse riding, and taking more care while driving, might reduce the chance of brain injury.

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

Last reviewed: April 2018

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