The Truth about Smell and Taste Loss

What causes smell and taste loss?

According to otolaryngologists, a person’s sense of smell is at its best between 30-60 years old. It begins to decrease in sensitivity after age 60, and many elderly people lose their sense of smell entirely. In general, women of all ages are more accurate at identifying odors than are men.

Some people are born with a poor sense of smell or taste; others are caused by upper respiratory infections or injury to the head. Smell loss can also be caused by:

  • Polyps in the nasal or sinus cavities
  • Hormonal disturbances
  • Dental problems
  • Prolonged exposure to certain chemicals
  • Certain medicines
  • Tobacco smoking
  • Radiation therapy in the head or neck
  • Patients who have had a laryngectomy

How is it diagnosed?

The degree to which a person’s sense of smell or taste has been compromised can be determined by using the lowest concentration of a chemical that person can both detect and recognize. A doctor may ask the patient to compare the smell or taste of a variety of chemicals, and to rate the intensity of those chemicals when the concentration is increased.

Is it treatable?

When medication is the cause of smell or taste loss, symptoms are improved when the medicine is discontinued. Some medications—such as anti-allergy drugs—may improve the senses of taste and smell. Patients whose senses are dulled by major respiratory illnesses or seasonal allergies will usually regain their senses of smell and taste just by letting their illness run its course. In the case of nasal obstructions (such as polyps), many can be removed. The restored airflow can correct the loss of smell and taste. Occasionally, in the case of spontaneous smell or taste loss, chemosenses return to normal as suddenly as they disappeared.

What should I do?

If you experience any smell or taste loss, take stock of the circumstances surround it. When did you first notice it? Are you experiencing a cold or allergies, or a head injury? Is this a reoccurring problem?

Bring any of this information with you to your otolaryngologist. It is crucial to see a professional to get a correct diagnosis, as many times smell and taste can become confused as the senses are highly linked. A proper diagnosis can also lead to the correct treatment for the underlying problem, and hopefully make this problem part of the past.