Many of us have heard that one of the key symptoms of COVID is the loss of smell. People who have suffered the loss of smell due to COVID found that it took more than a few days to get back the ability to sniff the world around them. They have also discovered how important the sense of smell is when it comes to understanding what's going on in their world.
The sense of smell is possibly the least appreciated of the traditional five senses. For instance, when was the last time you thought about your nose? Your vision will often override your sense of smell. If you see a rose, you know what it will probably smell like so in this way your vision takes control. But did you know that your nose can distinguish billions of aromas? Who knew there was so much to smell in the world.
Scents are made of tiny molecules released by food, leaves, pets, people, smoke, and more. These molecules are pulled into your nose when you breathe in and they get caught in the mucus lining of your nose. Unlike your other senses, the information about what you smell is sent straight to the part of your brain that also holds memories and emotions. Much of the time, you don't even realize the aromas in the air because smelling often happens subconsciously. You can be influenced by the slightest essence as it reminds you of a distant memory and the emotions that come with it.
So what happens when you can’t smell? This is called anosmia, the name of the condition where a person has lost their sense of smell completely. You may be surprised to learn that the lack of smell causes more than a little inconvenience. You may find that you are no longer interested in attending social gatherings, which often include food. And trying to get someone else to understand the consequences of losing the sense of smell is difficult at best. There is very little empathy or understanding from others, and this can lead to depression.
Why is the sense of smell important?
Without the ability to detect the odors around you, you would find yourself in dangerous situations. How, for example, do you know that the food on the stove is burning? That odor of burning food is a signal to go check and turn off the burner. Natural gas has an odor that warns you of a leak in your home. Spoiling food also has a different smell that naturally makes you gasp and toss it in the trash.
Think of the last time you enjoyed a delicious meal. Can you remember the smell? What you may not realize is that your sense of smell is interconnected with your ability to taste and enjoy food. Think of the last time you had a cold and your nose was clogged. The food you ate probably didn’t taste the same. And when food doesn’t taste the way you expect, your appetite is diminished.
Another reason you need to be able to smell is your self-care and intimacy. Each person has their own natural scent. Sometimes people choose to enhance that scent with perfume or aftershave. When you can’t smell the essence of those you love, it affects the way you interact with them.
About two percent of North Americans report having a decreased sense of smell. This is called hyposmia. Research has shown that there are connections between smelling disorders and diet. Food preferences change with your sense of smell. This is especially common with the elderly because your sense of smell can fade over time.
What causes a loss of smell? Several things can affect your ability to detect aromas in your world.
The cold or flu can cause your nose to become stuffed or clogged. Allergies can also affect your ability to smell. What you may not associate with losing the sense of smell are medications like those that regulate blood pressure. And the radiation or chemotherapy for cancer treatments may cause a loss of smell while the treatment lasts.
Smoking leads to increased mucus production in your nose. That mucus diminishes the ability of your olfactory cells to process smells. As a result, people who smoke often have problems sensing the odors around them. This could also be why smokers tend to use more salt and other spices in their food, as they try to compensate for their decreased sense of taste. People who quit smoking do notice an improvement in their sense of smell, which can result in decreased use of additional salt in their food.
The sense of smell has the unique ability to affect moods, behaviors, and even work performance. This is due to associative learning. Associative learning occurs when an event or item is linked to another (like scents), because of past experiences. For example, some people hate hospitals. This could be due to the odors that are particular to the hospital setting. Perhaps they had surgery or illness and spent time in the hospital. Most of the time that would be a negative experience. Or maybe they had a friend or relative who was in the hospital and the odor brings back that unpleasant memory. The association of that odor could trigger an emotional response like sadness or anger.
Most of the responses we have to scents were set in childhood. The smell of freshly mown grass on a warm summer day or the smell of grandma's kitchen especially when she was baking cookies most likely evoke warm, happy memories. If you smell freshly mown grass or warm cookies today, that previous association will put you in a pleasant frame of mind. Anytime we encounter a new smell there will be some sort of associative learning. That's how you know what a rose will smell like when you see it.
Even people can be identified by their individual scents. A 2015 study found that people were correctly identified by loved ones 75% of the time. And our ability to discern good odors from bad may even allow us to subconsciously identify someone who may be dangerous.
Now that you know what your nose knows, take advantage of it! Take time to smell the roses. Practice and enhance your sense of smell by seeking out different things to sniff. If you smoke, make an effort to quit. And of course, if you encounter any loss of your sense of smell, see your doctor right away. Making it a habit to use your nose more may open up a whole new world.