Losing your sense of smell and how to get it back
I had the opportunity to interview a young woman who temporarily lost her ability to smell. For anyone interested, I’ll give a brief rundown of events.
Before anything else, however, I must make a distinction. Not being able to smell is called Anosmia. But there is Congenital Anosmia for people born without it, and Acquired Anosmia for people who lose it after they already know what it is to smell. Acquired Anosmia usually happens as a result of physical trauma, like a blow to the head, or a sinus infection. But, one can also lose their sense due to prolonged disuse. In this case of the young woman I interviewed, it was disuse that led to her loss.
Ok, so let’s say one day you realize you have a spontaneous cerebral spinal fluid leak. Chances are you’re in for a rough time. The headache that never ends is from your brain tissue drying out and slowly dying. Daily, relentless, suicidal pain. The sinus problems are from your brain juices spilling out of your skull and into the pockets behind your face. You’ll probably get a spinal tap blood patch to refill your losses, and in the meantime (this can take months to refill) you get hallucinations. Auditory, like K-pop; visual like phantoms and UFO’s; maybe even olfactory. The thing about migraines-and-smells is that all smells turn into bad smells. All sensory stimuli sucks, but smell will trigger that deep, involuntary limbic system response – too much to ask for the migraine-suffering mind.
Back to the spontaneous cerebral spinal fluid leak. Now that your brain fluid has pillowed and deformed your sinus cavities, you should finish up your suite of procedures with some sinus reconstruction. Ahhh, looks great in there. Wait a month for the river of blood to dry up in your nose, get the scabs vacuum-sucked, and you’ll be good as new.
Just one more thing – since you’ve had a nose full of blood for the last several weeks, and you haven’t smelled a damn thing in quite a while, you’ve now lost your sense of smell. It doesn’t work at all.
Again, there are all types of things that can happen to make you lose your sense of smell, it doesn’t have to be a cerebral spinal fluid leak. You could faceplant in a rock-climbing accident, like this character written by the olfactory-science-fiction author Deji Bryce Olukotun. Or you could have your GI system removed and replaced with a bunch of tubes, like this gentleman on Radiolab. He couldn’t eat through his mouth anymore, and that eventually disabled his nose. His wife caught him one night in the kitchen with his digital members stuffed into a warm cake, and by some sensory shell-game, squishing its essence through his fingers and into the aromatic centers of his brain (necessity is the mother of invention). Anytime you stop using your nose – even by way of not-eating, you can lose it.
But there’s still hope. They can jumpstart your olfactory bulb in a couple of ways. Here, have some modified estrogen.* Oh, you can’t have estrogen? Sure, sniff these nose steroids through a baby bottle. In a week or so, you smell the steroids, and the rubber nipples, especially the “rotten fish” portion of the profile. The bad smells come first, and then the rest, one at a time. And that’s if you’re lucky. Sometimes it just doesn’t work, and may never come back, in which case you should read Oliver Sacks’ Hallucinations.
*Women smell things better than men, and fertile women better than anyone.
Fifth Sense - UK-based, volunteer-led charity supporting people with smell and taste disorders
Post Post Script
Q: Is it true the early success of your product stemmed from the fact that Ben, the official ice-cream taster, has a smelling problem?
BEN: I've never had a very good sense of smell, and if you don't have that, you don't have a good sense of taste. When we began, the game was for Jerry to make a flavor I could taste with my eyes closed. To do that, he had to make ice creams that were intensely flavored. Also: because of this disability, I have an excellent sense of mouth feel.Creaminess and crunchiness are very important to people who can't taste.
JERRY: This led to our putting bigger than standard chunks of fruit and candy into our ice creams. It turned out that people really liked these highly flavored, extra-chunky ice creams. We were offering them something unique.
On Dog Paws
“Dog feet are a great place for bacteria and yeast to take up residence because there's a lot of moisture and little to no air circulation in the folds and pockets of skin between the toes and foot pads. Bacteria flock there and reproduce with exuberance.”
“All these microorganisms emit their own distinct odors (they're what give us BO), and the popcorn/corn chip smell on some dogs' feet could be due to yeast or Proteus bacteria. Both are known for their sweet, corn tortilla–like smell. Or it could be Pseudomonas bacteria, which smell a little fruitier—but pretty close to popcorn to most noses.”