4 Factors That Could Affect Your Sense Of Smell
No, we don’t mean you stuck a carrot up there and forgot about it. Anthony Del Signore, M.D. and Assistant Professor in the Department of Otolaryngology and Director of Rhinology and Endoscopic Skull Base Surgery at Mount Sinai Beth Israel, says the first thing he does for in-patients with an off sense of smell is look for infections—polyps, fungus, pus. These can all block the nasal passageway and cause a loss of smelling capability. Similarly, if the patient has a particularly nasty sinus infection, that can throw off their sense of smell, making everything malodorous. Del Signore says these issues are easy to treat and diagnose. Rhinologists (a.k.a. nose doctors) will simply use an endoscope to look up your nose to rule out these possibilities.
Your nose is quite the complex system, so smelling something that’s not really there is totally possible if the nerve wiring is off. These are known as phantom smells. While what that smell is differs from person to person, it can be indicative of many problems in the brain, says Del Signore. Phantom smells are often experienced by those who suffer from epilepsy or seizures. Often a patient can sense the seizure is coming because they experience the phantom smell moments before they start to seize. A phantom smell can also be brought on by a brain tumor wreaking havoc on the smelling nerves. Although the smell of oranges is often noted as precursor to having a stroke, Del Signore notes that the specific scent of a phantom smell varies from person to person. Additionally, those who suffer from Alzheimer’s can experience phantom smells or, in some cases, a complete loss of sense of smell, he says.
Neurological issues will often be diagnosed through an MRI and/or CT scan after the possibility of infection has been ruled out, says Del Signore. These scans allow physicians to see if there’s something in the nose or brain damaging the smell sensors that they can’t readily see.
Certain medications, particularly nasal sprays, can cause your sense of smell and taste to be altered, say Del Signore. For example, in 2009, the over-the-counter nasal spray Zicam was recalled because its active ingredient, zinc, was causing users to permanently lose their sense of smell. If you’re using a nasal spray and start to experience altered smells or lose your sense of smell entirely, you should discontinue use and see a doctor. And, the sooner, the better. Del Signore notes that while a lot of exciting research is being done in the medical community to restore sense of smell, a lot of this research isn’t applicable yet and a loss of this sense can be permanent.
This can range from a head injury to sinus surgery. This isn’t too surprising: Anything invasive that has physically altered your nose or head can have an effect on your nose’s nervous system, and hence, your sense of smell, says Del Signore.
The key to diagnosing these symptoms is to look at the patient’s medical history, he says. That includes past surgeries and injuries, what medications they’re on, if they have any neurological deficits, physical examination beyond the nasal cavity, or a family history of these conditions.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you need to run to the doctor if your schnoz seems off one day. An altered sense of smell doesn’t mean much without other symptoms, he says. For example, just because you’re suddenly experiencing a sensitivity to the smell of onions, it doesn’t mean that you’re pregnant. However, if you’re experiencing that sensitivity along with breast tenderness and morning sickness, then it may be time to see a doctor. Del Signore says the emphasis should be placed on the chronic nature of the smell—is it prolonged over weeks? Is it occurring consistently before physiological events like a seizure? Those are cases where you should seek medical attention.
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