One of the most common symptoms of the notorious COVID-19 virus, a lack of one’s sense of smell, has brought anosmia awareness front and center.
Anosmia, also known as the inability to smell, is a medical condition with a wide variety of underlying causes. It also carries far ranging consequences for those who experience it. Anosmia Awareness Day, on February 27, reminds us of how greatly an individual can be impacted by their sense of smell.
From detecting smoke to tasting spoiled foods, your sense of smell can influence your survival in many perilous situations. Yet, one’s sense of smell influences far more than simply their ability to taste or detect noxious odors. Studies have also shown that one’s sense of smell bears a deterministic influence on their ability to perceive memory and emotion.
In order to further understand the variable influence of smell on our perception, we must first understand how our sense of smell works on a biological level.
What Is Our Sense of Smell and How Does It Work?
Our sense of smell, at the most rudimentary level, is our body’s detection of chemical signals. Our noses contain a plethora of different olfactory chemoreceptors — which can be thought of as sticky landing pads where different chemical signals bind to.
Upon binding, the olfactory chemoreceptors become activated and transfer the chemical signals to the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb is a portion of the brain where smell is processed. It is this very same olfactory bulb that can become infected by COVID-19, resulting in this temporary inability to smell.
The olfactory bulb is also connected to the amygdala and hippocampus where emotion and memory are processed. Stimulus from smells enter the amygdala and hippocampus prior to entering other areas of the brain that formulate our consciousness. This tract inherently causes our sense of smell to immediately impact both our emotions and memory.
If we were to examine two individuals who have anosmia, it is unlikely that they would experience this condition in the same manner. It is even more unlikely that their anosmia would be caused by the same underlying source.
What Causes Anosmia and How Can It Differ from Person to Person?
There is a wide variety of different medical conditions that can cause a person to experience anosmia, and each patient may experience it to a varying severity and duration.
Common causes of anosmia:
- Sinus infection
- Common cold
- Chronic Congestion
Less common causes of anosmia:
- Blockage of nasal passages caused by tumors, bone deformities, or nasal polyps
- Brain or nerve damage caused by Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease, brain tumors, brain or head injury, multiple sclerosis, malnutrition, radiation therapy, and long-term alcoholism
Duration and severity of anosmia:
- May be temporary or chronic
- Can induce partial or total lack of smell
While anosmia is not a life-threatening condition, it can greatly impact a person’s quality of life.
Living with Anosmia
The smell of roses, fresh bread, and many other blissful aromas become absent for those who endure anosmia. So too are the fond memories that such quintessential smells remind us of.
For nearly six million Americans, life without one’s sense of smell and taste may seem dreary. But now is not the time to give in — nor is it the time to give up. New treatments for anosmia have been advancing at a rapid rate, including the development of stem cells which could function as olfactory chemoreceptors.
If you are unable to smell, it is important to have a discussion with your physician in order to treat the underlying cause of your anosmia. Furthermore, it is imperative for all of us to be proactive with our health, to appreciate all of our five senses, and to never take the little things in life for granted.
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