Can’t Smell: Don’t Blame The Virus Yet, These Are The Other Causes

19 May 2020

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Our sense of smell serves more purposes than you think it does. One of the lesser-known facts about our olfactory function is that it’s closely related to our memory. There are so many times when we smell something and it evokes a particular memory or a feeling. The burning smell of the barbeque coal conjures up recollections of winter campfires, for example. In addition to being associated with memory, sense of smell is also highly emotive [1]. Therefore, we’ll be losing a lot if we lost our sense of smell. Yes! There is a chance, one can lose one’s sense of smell.

The condition in which one loses partial or complete sense of smell is called “anosmia”. It may be temporary or permanent depending on the cause. Common cold or allergies cause irritation in the nose’s lining that may lead to temporary anosmia. The condition isn’t usually serious but has a profound effect on a person’s quality of life. People with anosmia may lose interest in eating as they may not be able to fully taste the food. This can lead to other serious conditions and disorders like malnutrition, loneliness, anxiety, and even depression [2].

Causes Of Anosmia

Anything that has the potential to cause a disturbance in the path that leads to the perception of smell can lead to anosmia. Here are a few major causes of this condition.

Inflammatory And Obstructive Disorders:  In some acute diseases or infections in the nasal passage or areas connected to it such as the throat, lungs, etc., your body causes inflammation in the mucosa (a lining in the nasal cavity). This leads to an obstruction inside the nose in the form of polyps, heavy mucus and congestion, and even tumors. About 50% to 70% of anosmia cases can result from these disorders. [3]

Head Trauma: Another common cause of anosmia. Any kind of head injury can cause damage to the sinuses leading to a mechanical blockage and obstruction to the function of smell. An injury can also damage the olfactory axons, olfactory bulb, or the olfactory areas of the cerebral cortex – these are the parts that link the nose and the brain, and play a vital role in helping us smell things. The condition may be temporary or permanent depending on the area and the extent of the injury [3].

Aging: With age, individuals lose the number of cells in the olfactory bulb and the olfactory epithelium surface area, which are the most important components associated with the sense of smell. Aging decreases the sensitivity to smell that can eventually result in anosmia [3]. 

Disorders And Conditions: There are studies that link anosmia to neurodegenerative disorders like Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, and Lewy Body dementia; congenital conditions like Kallmann syndrome and Turner syndrome and infectious conditions like COVID-19 infections [3]. 

Lately, with the COVID-19 pandemic spread across the globe, people have been panicking about every minor symptom. Although losing the sense of smell is associated with the novel coronavirus, it doesn’t necessarily have to mean that you’ve been infected. There are major symptoms that you are supposed to look for in this infection, and as far as your lack of smelling ability is concerned, it may be due to some other reason. 

Other Traumatic Or Obstructive Conditions: Toxic agents like tobacco and drugs can cause olfactory dysfunction, nasal or sinus deformity caused due to facial traumas, and many other obstructions that can lead to, or worsen the already existing anosmia. 

Some medicines such as beta-blockers, antithyroid drugs, dihydropyridine, ACE inhibitors, and intranasal zinc can also contribute to the possibility of one losing the sense of smell [3].

 

Treatment And Management

Managing and treating the condition depends on the severity of the condition. Medicines like antihistamines and systemic glucocorticoids can be given to patients with anosmia that is caused due to inflammation or obstructive diseases. Often, antibiotics prescribed for bacterial sinus infections. Surgical procedures are performed when the condition does not respond to conservative medical management.

There is no specific treatment for olfactory impairment that is caused due to any kind of damage in the olfactory neurons. However, these neurons have the ability to regenerate, but the time and degree of regeneration depend on the severity of the damage. The regenerative abilities differ from individual to individual and can span over the course of days to years. 

While these are a few reasons for anosmia, it is essential to seek immediate medical attention if you find that your sense of smell has been compromised. Accurate diagnosis and early treatment may help you recover better in the long run.

Reference: 

  1. https://www.fifthsense.org.uk/psychology-and-smell/
  2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5863566/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK482152/

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