Problems with Smell

Treatment and Research

Relief is Possible

Although there is no treatment for presbyosmia -- loss of smell due to aging -- relief from smell disorders is possible for many older people. Depending on the cause of your problem with smell, your doctor may be able to treat it or suggest ways to cope with it.

Recovering the Ability To Smell

Some people recover their ability to smell when they recover from the illness causing their loss of smell. Some people recover their sense of smell spontaneously, for no obvious reason.

Other common causes of smell loss, such as the common cold or seasonal allergies, are usually temporary. Smell is regained by waiting for the illness to run its course. In some cases, nasal obstructions, such as polyps, can be removed to restore airflow through the nasal passages and restore the sense of smell.

If your smell disorder can’t be successfully treated, you might want to seek counseling to help you adjust.

Ask About Your Medications

Sometimes a certain medication causes a smell disorder, and improvement occurs when the medicine causing the problem is stopped or changed.

If you take medications, ask your doctor if they can affect your sense of smell. If so, ask if you could substitute other medications or reduce the dose. Your doctor will work with you to get the medicine you need while trying to reduce unwanted side effects.

Medications That May Help

Your doctor may suggest oral steroid medications such as prednisone, which is usually used for a short period of time, or topical steroid sprays, which can be used for longer periods of time. Antibiotics are also used to treat nasal infections. The effectiveness of both steroids and antibiotics depends greatly on the severity and duration of the nasal swelling or infection. Often relief is temporary. Occasionally, the sense of smell returns to normal on its own without any treatment.

Steps You Can Take

If you have a problem with smell, there are some things you can do.

  • Wait it out. If you have had a cold with a stuffy nose, chances are in a few days your sense of smell will return. However, you should not wait to see your doctor if you think something more serious has caused your loss of smell or you have had the problem for a while. Loss of smell can sometimes mean a more serious condition exists.
  • Sweat it out. If your nose is stuffed up from a cold, sometimes mild exercise or the steam from a hot shower may open up your nasal passages.
  • Stop smoking. Smoking causes long-term damage to your sense of smell. If you quit smoking, you may notice some improvement. To get free help quitting, visit www.Smokefree.gov
  • Check with your doctor. If your sense of smell seems to have disappeared or changed, or if you've noticed the problem for a while, see your doctor for help. Sometimes, especially with a sinus infection, taking antibiotics for a short period of time may remedy the problem. If there is a blockage or you have a chronic sinus condition, outpatient surgery may be called for.

If Your Smell Loss Is Permanent

If you do not regain your sense of smell, there are things you should do to ensure your safety. Take extra precautions to avoid eating food that may have spoiled. If you live with other people, ask them to smell the food to make sure it is fresh. People who live alone should discard food if there is a chance it is spoiled. Other home safety measures include installing smoke alarms and gas detectors.

For those who wish to have additional help, there may be support groups in your area. These are often associated with smell and taste clinics in medical school hospitals. Some online bulletin boards also allow people with smell disorders to share their experiences. Not all people with smell disorders will regain their sense of smell, but most can learn to live with it.

Ongoing Research

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) supports basic and clinical investigations of smell and taste disorders at its laboratories in Bethesda, Md. and at universities and chemosensory research centers across the country. These chemosensory scientists are exploring how to

  • promote the regeneration of sensory nerve cells
  • understand the effects of the environment (such as gasoline fumes, chemicals, and extremes of humidity and temperature) on smell and taste
  • prevent the effects of aging on smell and taste
  • develop new diagnostic tests for taste and smell disorders
  • understand associations between smell disorders and changes in diet and food preferences in the elderly or among people with chronic illnesses.