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Imagine not being able to smell cinnamon rolls, freshly coffee, or flowers. How about not being able to taste the foods you like. This is a daily challenge for people who have lost part or all or part their senses of taste and smell.
Disorders that cause a loss of taste and smell can be very frustrating. They can also be dangerous. Impaired senses may delay your ability to identify harmful substances like smoke or toxic fumes. A lack of smell and taste may also affect the appetite. This can easily lead to weight loss and even malnutrition.
Taste and smell are closely linked. Both sensations combine to play a role in how you recognize and appreciate flavors.
Taste buds on your tongue sense 5 basic taste sensations:
Smell allows you to recognize many other, more complex flavors. For example, if you held your nose while eating some lemon pudding, you would have a hard time naming the lemon flavor. You would, however, be able to know it is sweet or bitter.
If you’re having a hard time tasting your food, you may have a problem with your taste buds. Though it is more likely that the problem is with your sense of smell.
People with taste disorders may have one or more of the following:
A total loss of taste is possible but rare. What someone may think is loss of taste is usually a loss of smell.
People with smell disorders may have:
A small number of people are born with taste disorders. Most taste and smell disorders are caused by:
Smell disorders may be diagnosed with “scratch and sniff” tests. They will test how easily you can name common odors. To look for potential causes, the nose and sinuses may examined with:
Taste disorders may be diagnosed through a chemical test. The lowest levels of chemical will be given to test how well someone can detect a taste sensation. Tests will also include a taste comparison, and tests that measure intensity.
Some taste and smell disorders can be treated, but others cannot. Depending on the cause, treatment may include:
Most people will recover their sensations when the related illness or allergy has passed.
If you have lost taste or smell, you should see your doctor. It may resolve in time, once the cause has passed or is treated. Smoking can also dull your sense of taste and smell. Quitting can improve your senses.
If the loss is permanent, some steps may make eating more enjoyable:
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America
Taste and Smell Clinic at the University of Connecticut Health Center
Canadian Society of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery
Bromely S. Smell and taste disorders: a primary care approach. Am Fam Physician. 2000;61(2):427-436. Available at: http://www.aafp.org/afp/2000/0115/p427.html. Accessed http://www.aafp.org/afp/2000/0115/p427.html.
Smell & taste. American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery website. Available at: http://www.entnet.org/content/smell-taste. Accessed May 17, 2016.
Disorders of smell and taste. American Rhinologic Society website. Available at: http://care.american-rhinologic.org/disorders_of_smell_taste. Accessed May 17, 2016.
Last reviewed July 2018 by Michael Woods, MD Last Updated: 7/16/2018