Loss of Taste and Smell: What to Know

Although taste and smell are two distinct senses, they are closely linked. The mouth and nose are connected, so taste and smell often reach the brain at the same time. It’s hard to say exactly how much interplay between taste and smell is involved, but anyone who has lost both taste and smell knows that the two are closely related.

Loss of taste and smell has come under the spotlight because it can be a symptom of COVID-19. However, there are many other disorders that can cause a loss of taste or smell. This article describes conditions that can lead to loss of taste and smell, and ways to help you regain those senses.

Disorders Associated with Loss of Taste and Smell

Loss of taste and smell, or changes in these senses, can occur in a number of ways. Olfactory disorders (disorders affecting smell) are:

  • hypoxia: Decreased sense of smell
  • loss of smell: Complete loss of sense of smell
  • olfactory disorder: Changes in sense of smell. An example is something you smelled bad in the past but now smells good.
  • hallucination: Perceiving smells that don’t actually exist

Taste disorders include:

  • Agusia: Complete loss of taste
  • bowed head: Decreased sense of taste
  • dysgeusia: Confuse different tastes
  • Phantasma: taste something that doesn’t exist

These conditions can arise for a variety of reasons and may be temporary or permanent. If you lose your sense of taste or smell, it’s important to find the root cause of your smell or taste disorder.

What is causing me to lose my sense of taste and smell?

The root cause can be many. In some cases, changes in taste or smell can be an early warning sign of another disease. Many people who report problems with taste actually have problems with smell. The following are common causes of loss of taste and smell.

  • Age: Loss of taste, especially smell, decreases or changes with age. This is a normal part of the aging process. Generally speaking, about 2% of people have problems with smell, but about 25% of men in their 60s and 11% of women have a sense of smell. Since the perception of smell and taste are linked, changes in the olfactory system may affect your perception of taste. Taste buds also begin to die after age 50.
  • Hormonal changes: Hormones can affect your sense of smell, especially in cisgender women. Both estrogen and progesterone are involved in the olfactory system, so as hormone levels change — throughout the menstrual cycle, pregnancy or menopause — they can affect your perception of smell.
  • Nasal congestion or obstruction: The factory system or receptors for smell are located in the upper part of the nose. If your nose is clogged with allergies or congestion caused by illnesses like the flu, cold or sinus infection, it can prevent smells from reaching these sensors. This is also why nasal polyps or other obstructions can affect your sense of smell.
  • COVID-19: COVID-19 affects taste and smell differently than other infections. A cold or flu may reduce your sense of smell because a stuffy nose is blocking your nose. With COVID, the infection actually attacks the olfactory receptors. This is why COVID causes anosmia early on, even before congestion occurs, and why COVID patients can experience anosmia without congestion.
  • Concussion or head injury: As many as half of people with a mild concussion will temporarily lose their sense of smell. Head trauma affects the nasal passages and the olfactory nerve, which transmits odors to the brain. It can also affect areas of the brain that process olfactory signals. Most people regain their sense of smell within six months of injury.
  • Conditions of the brain or nervous system: In order to smell something, signals must be sent from the receptors in the nose, the olfactory nerve, and the brain. Diseases affecting the brain and nervous system interrupt this process and cause loss of smell. These include Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes.
  • Chemicals, smoking, and drugs: Exposure to certain chemicals, including those in cigarettes, can impair a person’s sense of smell. Smoking, recreational drug use, and pesticides can all weaken your sense of smell and taste.
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Do treatments or medications affect the sense of taste or smell?

Certain medical treatments and medications can affect your ability to taste and smell. These include:

  • Cancer treatment, especially radiation therapy to the head or neck
  • Surgery on the ear, nose or throat
  • antibiotic
  • antihistamines

Diagnosis of loss of taste and smell

If you lose your sense of taste and smell, you should go for one ENT doctor, or ENT. This is a doctor who specializes in the ears, nose and throat.

An otolaryngologist will use tests to determine how severe your loss of smell or taste is and whether certain smells or tastes are affected more than others. Some tests measure the smallest amount of smell or taste you can detect. Others require you to correctly identify certain tastes or smells.

How to Find the Right ENT

Importance of Diagnosis

Losing your sense of smell or taste may sound mild—until you experience it. Both smell and taste are important to overall health. A strong sense of smell can help you identify hazards like gas leaks or spoiled food. Taste is important for satisfaction when eating. People who lose their sense of taste and smell have an increased risk of diabetes, high blood pressure and depression.

Treating Loss of Taste and Smell

If you lose your sense of taste or smell, you should consult a healthcare professional. They will work to determine the cause of your loss. This will determine what treatment to use.

If your loss was due to a medical problem, addressing the problem can help restore your sense of smell. This may mean switching medications, receiving congestion therapy, or starting allergy medication.

In other cases, such as COVID-19 or a concussion, you must wait for your sense of taste and smell to return. Some people experience spontaneous recovery or their senses of taste and smell, but in rare cases, this condition may be permanent.

You can also enhance your sense of taste and smell by making lifestyle changes. Cooking with aromatic ingredients, using bold colors or adding spices can increase the satisfaction of your meal. Counseling can also help you with the emotional aspects of losing your sense of taste and smell.

Types of mental health treatment

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Loss of taste and smell can occur for a variety of reasons. This can be caused by viruses, including COVID-19. But it can also be a warning sign of serious medical problems, including dementia or a concussion. Be sure to talk to your healthcare professional if you lose your sense of taste or smell. They can help you treat what’s causing it and determine if you need further care.

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Coping with loss of taste and smell, even temporarily, can be difficult. It’s important to maintain a healthy diet, even if you’re feeling restricted. Talk to your healthcare provider about tips for improving meal satisfaction. Also, be sure to address the emotional impact of losing your sense of taste and smell.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How long does the loss of taste and smell last?

    In some cases, like the common cold, the senses of taste and smell return when the nasal congestion is gone. In other cases, such as concussions or neurological disorders, the loss can continue for months. Rarely, it can be permanent.

  • How long does COVID-induced loss of taste and smell last?

    Most people with COVID regain their sense of smell within a month of losing their sense of smell. Between 49% and 72% lost their sense of smell, and 84% of those who lost their sense of taste recovered during this time. However, some people experience permanent changes.

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  • Can a cold cause you to lose your sense of taste and smell?

    Yes, you can lose your sense of taste and smell from a cold. This is usually caused by a stuffy nose and should resolve when the stuffy nose goes away.

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