Navigate Up

Cancer Center - A-Z Index

#
Q
Y

Print This Page

Smell - impaired

Impaired smell is the partial or total loss or abnormal perception of the sense of smell.

Smelling
Smelling

Alternative Names

Loss of smell; Anosmia; Hyposmia; Parosmia

Considerations

The loss of smell can occur with conditions that prevent air from reaching smell receptors located high in the nose, or loss of or injury to the smell receptors. Loss of smell is not serious, but can sometimes be a sign of a nervous system condition.

Temporary loss of the sense of smell is common with colds and nasal allergies , such as hay fever (allergic rhinitis ). It may occur after a viral illness.

Some loss of smell occurs with aging. In most cases, there is no clear cause, and there is no treatment.

The sense of smell also enhances your ability to taste. Many people who lose their sense of smell also complain that they lose their sense of taste. Most can still tell between salty, sweet, sour, and bitter tastes, which are sensed on the tongue. They may not be able to tell between other flavors. Some spices (such as pepper) may affect the nerves of the face. You may feel rather than smell them.

Causes

Loss of smell can be caused by:

  • Medicines that change or decrease the ability to detect odors (such as amphetamines, estrogen, naphazoline, phenothiazines, long-term use of nasal decongestants, reserpine, and possibly zinc-based products)
  • Blockage of the nose due to nasal polyps, nasal septal deformities, and nasal tumors
  • Respiratory infections and allergies
  • Endocrine disorders
  • Alzheimer's dementia or other neurological problems
  • Nutritional deficiencies
  • Head injury or nasal or sinus surgery
  • Radiation therapy

Home Care

Treating the cause of the problem may correct the lost sense of smell. Treatment can include:

  • Antihistamines (if the condition is due to an allergy)
  • Changes in medication
  • Surgery to correct blockages
  • Treatment of other disorders

Avoid using too many nasal decongestants, which can lead to repeated nasal congestion.

If you lose your sense of smell, you may have changes in taste. Adding highly seasoned foods to your diet can help stimulate the taste sensations that you still have.

Improve your safety at home by using smoke detectors and electric appliances instead of gas ones. You may not be able to smell gas if there is a leak. Or, install equipment that detects gas fumes in the home. People with smell loss should label when the food item was opened to prevent eating spoiled food.

There is no treatment for loss of smell due to aging.

If you have a loss of smell due to a recent upper respiratory infection, be patient. The sense of smell may return to normal without treatment.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your health care provider if:

  • The loss of smell continues or is getting worse
  • You have other unexplained symptoms

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

The health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your medical history and current symptoms. Questions may include:

  • When did this problem develop?
  • Are all odors affected or only some? Is your sense of taste affected?
  • Do you have cold or allergy symptoms?
  • What medicines do you take?
  • Do you have any other symptoms? 

The health care provider will look at and around your nose. Tests that may be performed include:

If the loss of sense of smell is caused by a stuffy nose (nasal congestion), decongestants or antihistamines may be prescribed.

A vaporizer or humidifier may help keep mucus loose and moving.

Steroid nasal sprays or pills may be recommended.

Vitamin A may be given by mouth or with a shot.

References

Leopold DA, Holbrook EH. Physiology of olfaction. In: Flint PW, Haughey BH, Lund LJ, et al, eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2010:chap 41.

Baloh RW, Jen J. Smell and taste. In: Goldman L, Ausiello D, eds. Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 435.

Updated: 8/12/2013

Ashutosh Kacker, MD, BS, Associate Professor of Otolaryngology, Weill Cornell Medical College, and Associate Attending Otolaryngologist, New York-Presbyterian Hospital, New York, NY. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.


©  UPMC | Affiliated with the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences
Supplemental content provided by A.D.A.M. Health Solutions. All rights reserved.

For help in finding a doctor or health service that suits your needs, call the UPMC Referral Service at 412-647-UPMC (8762) or 1-800-533-UPMC (8762). Select option 1.

UPMC is an equal opportunity employer. UPMC policy prohibits discrimination or harassment on the basis of race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, age, sex, genetics, sexual orientation, marital status, familial status, disability, veteran status, or any other legally protected group status. Further, UPMC will continue to support and promote equal employment opportunity, human dignity, and racial, ethnic, and cultural diversity. This policy applies to admissions, employment, and access to and treatment in UPMC programs and activities. This commitment is made by UPMC in accordance with federal, state, and/or local laws and regulations.

Medical information made available on UPMC.com is not intended to be used as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. You should not rely entirely on this information for your health care needs. Ask your own doctor or health care provider any specific medical questions that you have. Further, UPMC.com is not a tool to be used in the case of an emergency. If an emergency arises, you should seek appropriate emergency medical services.

For UPMC Mercy Patients: As a Catholic hospital, UPMC Mercy abides by the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services, as determined by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. As such, UPMC Mercy neither endorses nor provides medical practices and/or procedures that contradict the moral teachings of the Roman Catholic Church.

© UPMC
Pittsburgh, PA, USA UPMC.com