When You Lose the Scent
Imagine what life would be like if the complex olfactory process broke down. Melissa Wittenborn, 48, of Hinsdale, Illinois, lost her sense of smell in an ice skating accident in 2003. She took a bad tumble, cracked her head and ended up in intensive care with a skull fracture and hemorrhages from five sites in her brain. Miraculously, she recovered — except for her sense of smell. Doctors told her that when her head hit the ice, her brain probably moved back and forth in her skull, shearing a nerve in the olfactory area.
About three months after the accident, Wittenborn was sitting on her back patio when a firefighter ran into her yard looking for an electrical junction box. He asked if she had smelled smoke. She had no clue that an electrical fire had broken out a few houses away and realized that if she were home alone, “I could be sitting in a burning house and not be aware until I felt heat or the smoke began to burn my eyes.” The installation of smoke alarms and gas detectors solved that problem, but life just isn’t the same without a sense of smell: “I’m missing out on so much, such as smelling my kids and husband when they get out of the shower. I instinctively sniff a floral bouquet and there’s nothing there.” She also lost her ability to taste, and thus she initially gained weight. There’s a theory, says Alan R. Hirsch, a Chicago neurologist and “olfaction expert,” that food aromas, while they initially may make you want a food, also help signal when you’re full; no smell, no signal.
Wittenborn is taking a variety of vitamins and supplements recommended by her doctor in hopes that her sense of smell will come back. Hirsch says there is some evidence that phosphatidyl choline may help improve olfactory function. There’s no proof yet, and some patients’ nerves do regenerate on their own. So far, Wittenborn has gotten an occasional whiff of coffee, and was thrilled recently when she caught the aroma of a pizza in the oven.
Losing some or all of your sense of smell can stem from a head injury like Wittenborn’s, polyps in the nasal cavity (surgery can fix that) or even a really bad cold, which can damage a membrane at the top of the nose. Certain medications, such as statins, can be to blame, too. If that’s the problem, smell sometimes comes back after you stop taking the drug.
Doctors use a scratch-and-sniff test to find out if you can smell 40 different odors as well as others of your age and sex can. Our sense of smell does gradually diminish as we get older. As many as half of us will experience a decline between ages 65 and 80; after 80, that number increases significantly. Sometimes, a problem with smell is the first sign of serious illness. “A good predictor of Alzheimer’s disease is loss of olfactory function,” says Richard Doty, director of the Smell and Taste Center at the University of Pennsylvania. Multiple sclerosis can also show up first as a loss of smell, and a strange odor may be a sign of epilepsy.
For most people, though, odors can be a joy and a comfort, even when taken for granted. A whiff of your mother’s roast chicken in the oven, freshly cut grass on a summer day, and even your wet dog are everyday reminders of the evocative power of your sense of smell.