Understand your loss of smell symptoms, including 7 causes & common questions.
Loss of smell symptoms
Sometimes the first sign of losing your sense of smell is losing your sense of taste. The two are closely related, and if you cannot smell, you may not be able to taste, either. Smell receptors are patches of cells in the back of the nose. If they are blocked or damaged, the sense of smell will lessen or dissappear. A partial loss of the sense of smell is referred to as hyposmia, while a total loss is referred to as anosmia.
Duration of symptoms
Your loss of sense of smell may be temporary if it is simply due to congestion. The sense of smell may not recover if it is caused by injury to the smell receptors, or by a neurologic illness (a disease of the nervous system).
Who is most often affected?
The following people are more likely to experience a loss of sense of smell.
- Anyone who has been overusing nasal decongestants
- Anyone with an upper respiratory infection
- Anyone with an allergy that causes sneezing and nasal congestion
- Anyone over the age of 50 or so
Is losing your sense of smell serious?
The severity of your loss of sense of smell depends on the cause.
- Not serious: In many cases, the loss is merely temporary from something like a heavy cold or an allergy and will return within a few days or weeks.
- Moderately serious: See a physician for any head injury or nasal injury, whether there is anosmia or not.
- Serious: If there are no other symptoms and no other apparent causes for losing your sense of smell, this indicates the early stages of neurologic illness.
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Loss of smell causes
The following details may help you better understand your symptoms and when and if you need to see a physician.
Nasal obstruction or blockage
Nasal blockages prevent air from reaching the smell receptor cells. This blockage can occur due to the following.
- Congestion and inflammation: Any kind of upper-respiratory infection, whether bacterial or viral, can cause congestion and other cold symptoms.
- Allergy: An allergy, such as hay fever, also causes nasal congestion and swelling inside the nose.
- Foreign body: This object will cause inflammation of the nasal lining and block smell receptors.
- Polyps: These are small, soft, noncancerous growths along the sinuses and nasal lining. They are a common cause of the loss of sense of smell that resolves once the polyps are removed.
- Tumors: A cancerous tumor may also grow from the nasal lining, interfering with your sense of smell.
Direct injury to the nose may damage or destroy the smell receptors. Types of injuries include the following.
- Fracture: Fracturing a nasal bone or cartilage which separates the nostrils (the septum) will result in a loss of sense of smell.
- Rhinoplasty: Also known as a nose job, this is plastic surgery to the nose.
Other traumatic causes
Head trauma, especially if the frontal lobes of the brain are injured, will result in a loss of sense of smell. Examples of trauma include the following.
- Concussion to the frontal lobes
- Nerve injury: An injury to the nerves leading from the smell receptors into the brain will result in a loss of sense of smell.
- Tumor: A tumor, whether benign or cancerous, is potentially damaging and can interfere with brain tissue.
- Radiation therapy to the head
Nasal decongestants, especially if used for a long time, can result in a "rebound effect," causing tissue swelling and blocked smell receptors. Other medications can also result in a loss of sense of smell, such as the following.
- High blood pressure medication
The nose contains delicate tissue with a generous blood supply so it can detect even faint scents. Diminished blood flow to this tissue will reduce your sense of smell.
Age or heredity
This list does not constitute medical advice and may not accurately represent what you have.
Sarcoidosis means the growth of tiny granulomas, which are collections of inflammatory cells. They are most common in the lungs, skin, and eyes.
The condition is thought to be an autoimmune response, meaning that the body turns against itself for unknown reasons.
Sarcoidosis can affect anyone. It is most common in women of African descent from age 20 to 40.
Symptoms include fatigue, fever, swollen lymph nodes, and unexplained weight loss. There is often dry cough, shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest pain. The skin may show unusual sores or bumps. Eyes may be reddened and painful, with blurred vision.
These symptoms should be seen by a medical provider, since sarcoidosis can cause organ damage if left untreated.
Diagnosis is made through careful physical examination, blood tests, lung function tests, eye examination, and sometimes biopsy and chest x-ray.
Treatment involves corticosteroid medication; drugs to suppress the immune system; and sometimes surgery. There is no cure for sarcoidosis, but it can be managed. Some cases will clear up on their own.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, shortness of breath, loss of appetite, joint pain
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Allergies are an overreaction by the immune system to something that does not bother most other people. Many people who have allergies are sensitive to pollen, but other things such as dust mites, animal dander, cockroaches, and mold can also cause a reaction.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, irritability, trouble sleeping, runny nose, congestion
Symptoms that never occur with chronic allergies: fever, yellow-green runny nose, chills, muscle aches
Acute viral sinusitis
Acute viral sinusitis, also called viral rhinosinusitis or "sinus infection," occurs when viruses take hold and multiply in the sinus cavities of the face.
It is most often caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold and spreads the same way, through an infected person's coughing or sneezing.
Because children have small, underdeveloped sinuses, this illness is far more common in adults.
Symptoms include clear nasal discharge (not greenish or yellowish,) fever, and pain if facial sinuses are pressed.
If there is rash, severe fatigue, or neurologic symptoms (seizures, loss of sensation, weakness, or partial paralysis,) see a medical provider to rule out more serious conditions.
Diagnosis can usually be made through history and examination alone.
Antibiotics only work against bacteria and cannot help against a viral illness. Therefore, treatment consists of rest, fluids, and fever/pain reducers such as ibuprofen. (Do not give aspirin to children.) Symptoms of viral sinusitis last for about seven to ten days. As with the common cold, the best prevention is frequent and thorough handwashing.
Top Symptoms: headache, cough, sinusitis symptoms, sore throat, congestion
Symptoms that always occur with acute viral sinusitis: sinusitis symptoms
Symptoms that never occur with acute viral sinusitis: being severely ill
New-onset seasonal allergies
New-onset seasonal allergies, also called adult-onset seasonal allergies, are sensitivities to pollen, mold, and other irritants that cause nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, itchy eyes, and sore throat.
Seasonal allergies commonly begin in childhood but can start at any age, especially among those with a family history. Moving to a different geographic location may trigger the allergy in someone with a genetic predisposition. Anyone with asthma is more likely to experience adult-onset seasonal allergies.
Sometimes the symptoms are actually from "pregnancy rhinitis" – nasal congestion and sneezing due to the effects of pregnancy hormones on the nasal tissue.
A new-onset allergy is often thought to be a cold, but a cold will clear up without treatment. Allergies persist, never getting better or worse, and can interfere with quality of life.
Diagnosis is made by an allergist, who will use skin tests and blood tests.
There is no cure for seasonal allergies but the symptoms can be managed for greater comfort and relief. Antihistamines, corticosteroid nasal sprays, and immunotherapy or "allergy shots" can be very effective.
Top Symptoms: sore throat, congestion, cough with dry or watery sputum, mucous dripping in the back of the throat, fatigue
Symptoms that never occur with new-onset seasonal allergies:fever, yellow-green runny nose, chills, muscle aches
Nose or sinus tumor
A tumor in the nose or one of the sinuses occurs due to abnormal growth of the cells lining the inside of the nose and sinuses. These tumors are rare and can cause symptoms like congestion or blockage, nose bleeds and sometimes facial pain or swelling.
Rarity: Ultra rare
Top Symptoms: new headache, congestion, vision changes, ear fullness/pressure, ear pain
Symptoms that never occur with nose or sinus tumor: improving congestion
Urgency: Primary care doctor
Brain tumor or mass
In medical terms, "mass" and "tumor" mean the same thing: the unexplained, out-of-place growth of tissue anywhere in the body, including the brain.
The cause of any sort of brain tumor is unknown. Some originate in the brain, while others spread from cancers growing in other parts of the body.
Symptoms may include increasing headaches; nausea and vomiting; blurred or double vision; loss of sensation in an arm or leg; loss of balance; confusion; speech difficulties; or seizures.
If symptoms persist, it is important to see a medical provider so that any treatment can begin as soon as possible.
Diagnosis is made through neurological examination, CT scan, and/or MRI.
If the mass or tumor is found to be benign, that means it is not cancer and not harmful. It may or may not be treated.
If it is malignant, that means it is cancer and must be treated. This will involve some combination of surgery, radiation therapy, and chemotherapy, followed by specialized therapy to help with recovery.
Top Symptoms: fatigue, headache, nausea, loss of appetite, irritability
Symptoms that always occur with brain tumor or mass: focal neurological symptoms
Urgency: In-person visit
The common cold is a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, which includes the nose, mouth, sinuses, throat, and larynx. There are over 200 viruses that can cause upper respiratory infections, and usually the exact virus behind a cold is never known.
The common cold is, of course, very common..
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Loss of smell treatments and relief
When to see a doctor
Schedule an appointment for the following.
- Any reduction in sense of smell: Especially if it impacts your quality of life or if you have other symptoms such as nasal congestion or facial pain.
- A loss of sense of smell that seems to have no apparent cause:This symptom may be a warning of neurologic illness.
- Advice: Your physician can help you cope if your loss of sense of smell is permanent, so you don't fail to detect things such as gas leaks, spoiled food, or smoke.
You can use a salt water nasal spray to help clear any blockage or debris that is blocking the smell receptors. Try using extra spices and seasoning on your food to improve the taste.
FAQs about loss of smell
Here are some frequently asked questions about loss of smell.
Can you reverse loss of smell?
Certain causes of loss of smell, or anosmia, may be reversed, while others cannot be. Infections, congestion, or obstruction of the nasal passages may lead to a decreased or lost sense of smell. Many of these causes can be reversed with medications or with time as your body fights off the infection, leading to a return of the sense of smell. However, other causes of loss of smell cannot be reversed, such as head trauma, facial trauma, or brain damage including some strokes.
Is losing your sense of smell a sign of Alzheimer's?
Loss of the sense of smell, or anosmia, is associated with Alzheimers. People with Alzheimers first lose their ability to identify smells and then later lose the ability to detect different smells. However, just because you cannot smell does not mean you have Alzheimers. Other causes of loss of smell are much more common and pervasive in people.
What medications cause loss of smell?
Certain medications are associated with loss of smell. These include amlodipine, anti-thyroid drugs, beta-blockers, some antibiotics (like doxycycline and ciprofloxacin), cadmium, diltiazem, enalapril, interferon, lovastatin, methotrexate, nifedipine, silver nitrate, terbinafine, zinc (when taken in the nose) and many chemotherapy drugs. Tobacco products and cocaine can also cause impaired smell.
Can pregnancy cause women to lose their sense of smell?
While many women report a heightened sense of smell during pregnancy, there is little evidence to support this is a widespread experience. The same can be said of losing ones sense of smell. While the hormones of pregnancy can have a wide range of strange effects on your body, there is little evidence linking pregnancy to losing your sense of smell.
Can nasal spray affect your sense of smell?
Most nasal sprays will not affect your sense of smell. Intranasal zinc spray, which is used as an over-the-counter remedy for the common cold, may lead to decreased or lost sense of smell, however. Since many nasal sprays are designed to reduce congestion, they can restore your sense of smell if it was inhibited by congestion.
Questions your doctor may ask about loss of smell
- Do you have a runny nose?
- Do you have a stuffy nose?
- Do you feel fullness or pressure in your face?
- Are you experiencing a headache?
Self-diagnose with our free Buoy Assistant if you answer yes on any of these questions.
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- Anosmia - Loss of Smell. The New York Otolaryngology Group. NYOGMD Link.
- Olichney JM, Murphy C, Hofstetter CR, et al. Anosmia is Very Common in the Lewy Body Variant of Alzheimer's Disease. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry. 2005;76(10):1342-1347. NCBI Link.