Smell and Taste Disorders

Surprisingly, the sense of smell had a large impact on our ability to taste. In fact, when we talk about taste, we’re really talking about smell because much of our experience of the “taste” of food is actually what we smell.

If the sense of smell or taste is lost or diminished, it can have a significant impact on the quality of life. More importantly, it can also be a sign of an underlying disease. Smell disorders are also serious because they damage the early warning system that can alert a person to such things as:

  • Fire
  • Poisonous fumes
  • Leaking gas
  • Spoiled food and beverages

The loss of the senses of smell (anosmia) and taste (ageusia) are the most common chemosensory disorders. The reduced ability to smell (hyposmia) or to taste sweet, sour, bitter or salty substances (hypogeusia) are also common.

Causes of Smell and Taste Disorders

Abnormalities in taste and smell can accompany or indicate the existence of diseases or conditions, such as:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Hypertension
  • Malnutrition
  • Degenerative diseases of the nervous system, such as:
    • Parkinson's disease
    • Alzheimer's disease
    • Multiple sclerosis

A smell and taste disorder can be caused by:

  • Illness (for example, upper respiratory infection, sinus infection and allergies)
  • Injury to the head
  • Hormonal disturbances
  • Dental, oral, or perioral problems
  • Nasal polyps
  • Exposure to certain chemicals
  • Certain medications
  • Exposure to radiation therapy for head or neck cancer
  • Over-the-counter and prescription medications
  • Intranasal cocaine inhalation
  • Cigarette smoking

Diagnosis of Smell and Taste Disorders

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, diagnostic procedures may include:

  • Measuring the lowest concentration of a chemical that a person can recognize
  • Comparing tastes and smells of different chemicals
  • "Scratch and sniff" tests
  • "Sip, spit and rinse" tests where chemicals are directly applied to specific areas of the tongue

Treatment for Smell and Taste Disorders

Specific treatment for smell and taste disorders is determined based on the extent of the disorder, your age, overall health and medical history, as well as your tolerance for specific medications, procedures or therapies.

Treatment may include:

  • Stopping or changing medications that contribute to the disorder
  • Correction of the medical problem that is causing the disorder
  • Surgical removal of obstructions that may be causing the disorder
  • Smoking cessation

What You Should Expect

You will receive a thorough diagnostic examination to evaluate if you have a smell or taste disorder and determine what course of treatment is needed. Careful monitoring and the involvement of an experienced otolaryngologist are important to the successful outcome for patients with ear, nose and throat disorders and conditions.

If you are having surgery or a procedure, you will likely be scheduled for a visit to the Weiner Center for Preoperative Evaluation for pre-operative information and tests.

The day of surgery, you will be taken care of in the operating room by otolaryngologist, anesthesiologists and nurses who specialize in surgery for patients with smell or taste disorders. After surgery, you will go to the post-surgical care unit where you will receive comprehensive care by experienced surgical and nursing staff.

Learn more about your hospital stay, patient-centered care and returning home.

Multidisciplinary Care

Brigham and Women’s Hospital provides a multidisciplinary approach to patient care by collaborating with colleagues who have extensive experience in diagnosing and treating ear, nose and throat disorders and conditions. In addition, patients have full access to BWH’s world-renowned academic medical community, with its diverse specialists, and state-of-the-art facilities.

Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery Appointments and Locations

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