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. Scientists are studying how our sense of smell works so that new treatments can be developed.
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. Although certain medications can cause a loss of smell, others seem to improve smell and sometimes taste. An example of this is anti-allergy medicines.
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.
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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.
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 on Your Own
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.
- 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 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.
Research to Find New Treatments
The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders funds basic and clinical studies on smell disorders. Scientists are working to understand more about the sense of smell so that new treatments can be developed to help restore the sense of smell to people who have lost it.
Scientists are finding out more about how our sense of smell works and how we detect and smell the many different compounds that form odors. These findings are helping scientists study the sense of smell as a model for other sensory systems in the body.
Studies on Aging and Smell
Like other senses in our bodies, our sense of smell can decline as we grow older. Researchers are studying why and how these age-related changes in smell occur.
Interestingly, olfactory cells -- as well as taste cells -- are the only sensory cells that are regularly replaced throughout life. However, the ability to replace cells may decline with age and contribute to our loss of smell. Understanding these changes may help researchers develop ways to replace damaged sensory cells and restore smell and prevent, or at least slow, the age-related loss.
Scientists have found that loss of smell affects the choices an older person makes about eating certain foods. They are looking at how and why this takes place in order to develop more effective ways to help older people -- especially those with chronic illnesses -- cope better with problems with smell. It is very important that older people maintain a healthy diet even while the sense of smell is declining.