Our senses of taste and smell are really important. We need to be able to appreciate and enjoy our food and our smell forms a lasting impression of our surroundings and atmosphere. We derive such a vast amount of pleasure and comfort from smelling and tasting. In the UK, as much as 20% of those over sixty have a reduced ability to smell which is potentially very impactful on an individual's daily experience. There many things that can affect or change our senses. In this article I look at some of them.
Some common reasons for a change in taste and smell are:
Smoking and nasty pollutants
Recreational drug use
Dry nose or mouth
Read on to find out about these issues in more depth!
How can I tell if my taste and smell is normal?
I have always associated this time of the year with those early morning walks to school after a lazy summer. The air starting to chill slightly. Sounds and smells seem sharper and somehow clearer. We should all be enjoying the scent of the last few blossoms. Soon we will have the start of that slightly sweet, mushroomy and earthy smell that is Autumn. Of course, it may be diesel and cigarette fumes with a dash of coffee if you are an urban inhabitant. All of these olfactory cues we take for granted and so it can take a while to notice if they aren't there anymore.
The other thing that can be hard to tell is the difference between the loss of taste and the loss of smell. The two are so entwined, as so much of our appreciation of food is the aromatic smell that gets the mouth-watering in anticipation. If all of your food is tasting more cardboard-like, maybe get a friend to give you an 'is it taste or smell?' test. Have a root around in the kitchen: you don't need to try anything fancy. Stick on a blindfold – no cheating. If you block your nose, does chocolate taste the same? With your nose blocked, can you tell the difference in taste between a lemon and a lime?
Also, try testing your sense of smell. Cinnamon, pineapple, rose, smoke and onions are all good smell indicators. Can you smell through both nostrils? Can you even breathe through both nostrils?
Losing your sense of taste is rare; it's called ageusia. We tend to get flavour and taste mixed up, flavour being the whole experience of food – temperature, texture, and aroma. The recognised tastes are sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami (tasty). These are recognised by taste receptors on our tongue and in other parts of the mouth.
In most cases the sense of smell is more likely to be affected. In the UK, it affects up to as many as 20% of adults over 601. In younger adults, the numbers are smaller but still relevant. That's a lot of people not enjoying their food properly. My dad can't taste or smell much of anything anymore. He's been getting his food kicks from supermarket packet tiramisu. While calorific and fatty, it is bringing nothing nutritionally beneficial to the table. The worry is that he will get really run down if that is all he is eating. If sugar and salt are the only things you can taste, it can be hard to make healthy food choices.
My Self-Care Tip: How to tell if your taste or smell is not working?
Any change in taste or smell is important to identity. This video gives my ideas on how you might identify any change in your senses.
What causes a change in taste and smell?
The causes of a lack of smell and taste are many and varied. Here are some of them:
Smoking and nasty pollutants. I remember moving to London and being horrified by all this black stuff on my hanky. Is it any wonder that they now believe air pollution can be linked to a lack of olfactory sensitivity2? Some environmental toxins like pesticides can cause permanent damage as the delicate nerve cells in the airways do not recover. Smoking and diesel fumes irritate the nasal passages which cause sneezing and congestion. Mucus overproduction then stuffs up the nose, blocking the sensitive receptors.
Cocaine. Most of the time cocaine is snorted through the nose. This can irritate the nasal passages causing inflammation and congestion. Smell and taste can be affected. Incessant inflammation may cause permanent damage to the nose lining the delicate nasal hairs. Their job is to trap impurities, toxins and potential microscopic invaders. Nose-pickers be warned too!
Medication. All sorts of medications can affect the sense of smell and taste. Examples are things like antibiotics, blood pressure medication and some chemotherapy treatments. It will usually return again when treatment is over. If you think this is affecting you, talk to your doctor. It is important that you should keep taking your medication.
Allergies. Allergic rhinitis and hayfever can stop you smelling the flowers and everything else too. When you are allergic to something, the body thinks that the allergen is this huge threat. It doesn't matter if it's cat, dust, mould or pollen molecules, it will try to expel this by sneezing it out. It also tries to flush it out with mucus and tears and produces histamine to puff up the eyes and nose. This is an overreaction by the immune system, and it affects how well the olfactory organ can function.
Sinus issues. The sinus cavities are large spaces that lie behind the face, at either side of the nose and in the forehead. These can get filled with solid goo that can be really hard to shift. That is why you can get a banger of a headache and face pain when you have a sinus infection. Allergies that are untreated can lead to chronic congestion and inflammation. Occasionally the blockage may be caused by something like a polyp. Sinusitis is the condition of repeat sinus attacks. The sinus cavities are always inflamed, infected or blocked. While a cold will last for up to ten days, a sinus condition can go on for weeks. If you smell anything during this period, it will probably be unpleasant.
A dry nose and mouth will affect smell and taste. A dry and crusty nose can be caused by allergies, inflammation and even falling oestrogen levels. If your nose is blocked all the time, mouth breathing will have your lips stuck to your teeth. Food molecules in the mouth need to be dissolved if the taste receptors are to be able to read the taste. Lots of things like dehydration, medication, and underlying conditions can cause dry mouth. Bad bacteria can thrive in a dry mouth, and can leave a bad taste. It's not great for the poor teeth and gums, as they rely on saliva and beneficial bacteria to keep the mouth environment healthy.
Zinc deficiency has been linked to both a loss of taste and appetite. Other symptoms of a zinc deficiency are diarrhoea, fatigue and weight loss. We don't need very much zinc in our diet: it's a trace mineral. Shellfish, meat, wholegrains, nuts and beans are all good sources. We do need a daily minimum amount of it in the food that we eat every day, because the body doesn't store it. The elderly and those with digestive disorders are vulnerable to many nutrient deficiencies. This may have a knock on effect on their ability to taste their food, let alone keep up a hearty appetite.
Obesity. A high body mass index or BMI has been associated with olfactory impairment 3. I think this is really interesting. They haven't yet discovered if the poor sense of smell is caused by the weight gain or is the result of it. Perhaps a general increase in inflammation is to blame? Does this cause congestion in the nose? Obesity has been linked to other inflammatory conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Further research is needed.
Nutrient deficiency. Another possibility is that nutritional deficiencies linked to poor food choices are to blame. Many nutrient deficiencies can affect taste, such as zinc, B vitamins, and even iron. It may be a vicious circle, with obesity impairing the enjoyment of food. This may be driving a need for very salty or sweet food that is low in nutritional value. Without functional taste and smell, can the appetite ever be satisfied?
What can you do about loss of taste and smell?
Keep that nose clean and clear. I love neti pots, nasal sprays and rinses. The basic premise is that you use a saline or salty solution to wash out the nose on a regular basis. This has numerous benefits.
It clears congestion
It gently sterilises and soothes any inflammation in the nose. Like gargling with salty water when you have a slight sore throat.
It loosens any crusty or dry mucus that may be sticking all the little nasal hairs together - so much more efficient and hygienic than nose picking!
A neti pot is like a mini watering can that you fill with a warm saline solution. You then gently pour it up one nostril and down the other. It works really well and can be done every day, so it's a great long-term solution. Never let someone you fancy see you doing this - it's not pretty! For the squeamish, or those who cannot spend much time leaning over the bathroom sink, there are other options. A nasal spray may be more convenient, for instance.
A.Vogel have three saline nasal sprays. All of them are free from preservatives and can be used long term. Here's a run-down of their differences:
Sinuforce Nasal Spray eases congestion quickly and contains helpful eucalyptus and peppermint. Chamomile is in there to soothe and calm irritated membranes.
Sinuforce Dry Nose is for a dry and crusty nose and contains lots of lovely, moisturising hyaluronic acid (sounds scary but is actually found naturally in the body).
Pollinosan Nasal Spray is formulated for allergies, whether hayfever or allergic rhinitis. It will rinse out any irritants and ease symptoms like itching and sneezing.
If your allergies are really bothering you, don't be afraid to take action. You can use more than one remedy when the symptoms are severe. I like to bulk up on things like vitamin C and nettle, which we know can have a positive effect on lowering histamine levels. If at all possible, try to identify what is bothering your poor nose and avoid it.
The herb Plantago or plantain has traditionally been used as a herbal decongestant. We used to call the plant 'soldiers' because the flower looks a bit like the Queen's Guard's tall furry hats. Like rustic cotton buds or little nose cleaners, they help to keep the nose clear. We want to stop the nasal smell receptors from being buried under a layer of impenetrable goo.
Vitamin C and zinc are both important nutrients for the immune system. They have been used to help inflammation and wound-healing. Together, they can help repair any damage to the nose and airways. This is important, if you are being bombarded by a cold, allergies or dirty pollution.
Drink water - lubrication is important for taste and smell. Thirst will make your tongue furry. It will stick to the roof of your mouth. It won't be receptive to succulent and exciting flavours. Equally, a dry nose will not be able to detect many delightful odour molecules, it may just sneeze them out again.
Keep a food diary if you suspect that you are not eating well enough. We are all creatures of habit and tend to eat the same kind of things every day. It's easy to fall into a habit of not eating as well as we should, and then we may fall short of zinc or vitamin C or iron. By eating the right food every day, we can protect our ability to taste and smell it. Sounds like a fair deal.
Finally, do go to your GP if you have a sudden loss of taste or smell. Covid-19, but also many other corona virus and colds and flu, can affect taste and smell. Many of these are not at all serious, but some are and therefore these symptoms should be investigated by your doctor or other qualified medical professional.