Excerpt from Navigating Smell and Taste Disorders

It is hard for many of us to envision a life where we cannot smell and taste our morning coffee or smell a freshly mowed lawn, a bouquet of flowers, or our favorite perfume. Can you imagine not recognizing spoiled food or sour milk—until you taste them and spit them out in disgust? These are only a few examples of life without a normal smell and taste system.

But like the old song says, "You don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." Many people have no idea just how hard life without the ability to smell and taste normally must be. If you ask the average person to rate the importance in his or her life of the common senses of hearing, vision, taste, and smell using a number rating system of 1 to 10 in which 1 is least important and 10 most important, the majority would give vision a 10, hearing a 9, and smell and taste a 5. But when you ask people with smell and taste problems the same question, they agree that vision gets a 10 and hearing a 9—but they give smell and taste an 8!

That's because they know that life without a functioning smell and taste system is difficult in many ways:

  • You may enjoy eating less because food tastes different or has almost no taste at all.
  • You may not realize when you're in danger from a fire, a gas leak, or spoiled food.
  • You may have social problems—such as not realizing when you've put on too much perfume or not noticing if you've stepped in a dog mess.
  • You may have trouble on the job. Imagine a firefighter who can't smell smoke or a chef who can't detect when her soufflĂ© is burning. What about a lineman who doesn't realize he's cut into a gas line?

Could you have a taste or smell disorder? See if you have some of the following common symptoms that are described every day in smell and taste clinics:

  • Food tastes bland
  • Everything tastes the same
  • Eating isn't enjoyable
  • Every time I eat, I get a bad taste in my mouth

Did you notice something about this list? Almost no one mentions the sense of smell. Most people with smell and taste disorders are most distressed about their absent or altered sense of taste. They notice that they do not smell as well as they used to—frequently, they cannot smell anything—but problems with taste are usually what people find most troubling. But, in fact, the two senses are closely linked; usually, if you have a problem with one, you have a problem with the other as well.

The majority of people who have taste symptoms really have a problem with their sense of smell. A normal smell and taste system is necessary for you to recognize flavors. If either system is impaired—more so with smell—you likely will have difficulty recognizing flavors.

Smell and taste disorders become more common as we age. As many as 14 million Americans over age 55 have smell impairment. Some studies have shown that half of people between 65 and 80 and three-fourths of people over 80 have smell and taste problems. Since Americans are living longer and longer lives, more and more will develop smell and taste difficulties.

If you are reading this book, you are probably one of them—and so am I. One day in 1995, I noticed that the milk on my breakfast cereal tasted very sour. Although I have the habit of smelling the milk carton, I hadn't detected that the milk had gone bad. I realized that I could not smell the sour milk. A few days later, while cleaning out the dog pen, I noticed that the dog's stool smelled sweet rather than foul. That part wasn't a problem, although I did get stuck with full-time dog cleanup as a result. But I knew my sense of smell had changed, and I decided I needed to learn more about why.