From the scent of fresh flowers to the creamy goodness of ice cream, many of the best things in life are associated with smell and taste.
It’s also important to be able to detect scents that can be harmful or foods that might be spoiled. For this reason, any disorders that affect the ability to smell or taste can seriously impact quality of life. In some cases, the problem is nothing more than a minor inconvenience caused by a severe sinus infection or a similar issue.
Other times, a more comprehensive approach to diagnosis and treatment is needed to resolve the issue or identify the source of the problem.
Any condition with symptoms that may affect how odors or flavors are interpreted can be classified as a smell and taste disorder. However, it’s rare to experience a true loss of taste. Oftentimes, it’s problems related to smell that make it seem like there is no ability to taste. There are many specific disorders that may affect smell and/or taste. The most common ones are:
An inability to smell (anosmia)
A complete loss of taste (ageusia)
A reduced sense of smell (hyposmia)
An inability to identify or taste certain flavors (hypogeusia)
What May Cause These Disorders to Develop?
Some disorders, like fish odor syndrome, are present at birth (congenital). Other smell and taste problems could be related to upper respiratory infections, Bell’s Palsy, nasal polyps, structural issues with the mouth, nose, or throat, and unresolved dental problems. Contributing factors may also include hormone or age-related changes, radiation exposure from treatment for head or neck cancer, cigarette smoking and narcotic drug use, and reactions to certain medications.
How Are Smell & Taste Disorders Diagnosed?
Following a review of medical history and a physical examination, an ENT specialist may measure the lowest level of a chemical that can be detected or evaluate results from a scratch or sniff test. With taste disorders, special chemicals that produce certain taste sensations are sometimes applied to different parts of the tongue. Taste comparisons may also be done. Diagnosis could also involve:
Nasal or throat examinations with an endoscope
X-rays or CT scans
Sinus or allergy tests
Possible Treatment Options
Some small and taste disorders cannot be treated or completely resolved. In some cases, all that’s necessary is a change in medication, stopping certain medications, or better management of allergy or sinus conditions. With some conditions, therapy may help improve smell and taste capabilities. It’s also possible for the improvement of the ability to smell to also improve the ability to taste. If the source of the problem is structural, surgery may be necessary, although this is usually a last resort. Surgery may also be needed if an obstruction is contributing to smell and taste disorders.
Underlying health issues can also affect the ability to detect or distinguish odors or food flavors. For example, smell and taste problems may be associated with diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease and other nervous system diseases, and high blood pressure. Obesity, poor nutrition, and similar lifestyle issues can also play a role in how these two senses function. In some instances, treating the underlying health problem or making positive lifestyle changes restores normal taste and smell abilities.