What would you do if you couldn't smell?

Katherine - posted on 03/23/2012 ( 11 moms have responded )

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No, really. What would you do? What scents would you miss the most? Freshly laundered sheets? A certain perfume or cologne worn by someone you care about? Mom/dad/Aunt Jane’s meatloaf? The roses in your garden? While I might miss my favorite perfume, I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t miss: subway body odors. But what about if you never had a sense of smell—how would you even know what to miss? And how would your life be different?



The latter questions were the subject of a paper published in the open access journal PLoS One. The ability to smell can undoubtedly be useful. It can warn you of a gas leak or that the milk or meat you’re about to consume is bad. It could tell you that the iron is on or that you’ve stepped in something unpleasant. It entices us to eat—can you resist the savory smells of your favorite meal? Data from the NIH reports that 1%-2% of people in North America have a smell disorder that may range from the reduced ability to detect odors (hyposmia), which can be a temporary result of having a cold, to the inability to detect odors completely (anosmia). (That percentage rises to 15%-20% when global populations are counted.) Isolated congenital anosmia (ICA) occurs when otherwise healthy people are born without a sense of smell. And it’s rare: researchers estimate that 1 in 5,000-10,000 are afflicted (globally). But for those few individuals, how are their lives changed? This was the question that Ilona Croy and colleagues set out to answer:



If the sense of smell is important for ingestive behaviour, environmental hazards and social communication, like described above, how are these domains affected in patients with ICA? Do ICA patients have trouble maintaining their weight or do they obtain no joy in eating, for example? Do they accidentally eat spoiled food? Do they also worry about their body odor? And do they feel different in social situations? Or are people without a sense of smell not affected at all by this deficit and is olfaction just overestimated?



It turns out that these individuals don’t experience significant differences in quality of life. In fact, they often don’t realize that they’re missing anything—and that makes sense: how can you know something is missing if you’ve never had the item to begin with? Often, anosmia is diagnosed when someone close to the person notices a discrepancy in responses to offensive odors, which researchers believe may indicate that smell may not be as crucial to the ways we experience the world.



A survey of individuals with ICA also reveals that there may be other sensitivities to consider (1). For example, individuals with ICA reported a higher incidence of household accidents and a greater degree of social insecurity. The former relates to things like leaving the iron on or drinking spoiled milk. In this case, individuals reported developing coping strategies—”Hey, does this smell okay to you?”—to reduce difficulties. The latter reflects concerns about social relationships. The researchers propose that olfactory cues can provide important—subtle—information about other people that could help guide appropriate social interactions. In the absence of these cues, having ICA may result in hesitation in social settings. However, the authors are careful to note that additional research is needed to confirm both points.



It makes sense to a certain degree: Anything that might impact your ability to function within a social setting might heighten social insecurity, but it might have less to do with olfactory cues from others, and more to do with concerns about self—along the lines of “Does my breath smell?” or “Is my deodorant still working?”. Can you actually smell anxiety? I’m not sure, though you might be able to sense it and read it from body language and in other cues. And if you were in a situation where you could smell the fear on someone else, well, my guess is that you’d already know he was frightened. While pheromones may play a role in mate selection and in influencing behavior, their function in human relations remains somewhat mysterious.



One of the findings from the study is that individuals with ICA report being breast fed as often as controls. The reseachers note that this is somewhat surprising given the importance of smell for infants in locating the nipple. I think perhaps this is less surprising than one might suppose: human mothers can presumably guide their infants to the nipple if needed. Croy and colleagues also note that there does not seem to be noticeable effects on eating behaviors, which they find odd given the link between smell and taste. And while a decrease in appetite is often reported in individuals with hyposmia, the lack of a noticeable effect in eating behaviors in individuals with ICA may be the result of being socialized without a sense of smell. If the individuals and those closest to them are unaware of being different initially, then they’re likely not being treated differently at meal times—and we can’t forget that we just don’t know what the relationship between ICA and taste is.



Ultimately, smell may be less important to daily life activities for humans than for other members of the animal kingdom for whom a sense of smell is tied to daily survival—in part because we belong to social systems that can provide support and help us cope in the face of what might otherwise present a challenge. But this doesn’t mean smell is a dispensable sense.

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Belinda - posted on 04/17/2012

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I dont have a very high sense of smell. In fact, its usually my husband (or my kids) who tells me when my youngest son has pooped his pants!!



If it is a really strong smell...then I can smell it....but generally..no, i cant smell much.



Im not too bothered by it (especially with the nappy situation! lol) but I agree with what someone else said, there are other senses that would be worse. I can manage if my hearing went (slightly deaf in my right ear anyway! lol)...but I would be lost without my sight...I would hate not being able to read my books!

Ashley - posted on 03/30/2012

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that would have been nice ... the fading part lol my daughter is almost 3 and my sense of smell is so sensitve i can smell if my neighbour burns toast

Katherine - posted on 03/29/2012

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I could smell everything while pregnant too. That's probably why I puked so much!

Sarah - posted on 03/29/2012

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Huh. Not here. Mine faded back to normal, i.e. almost nothing, in the first month after I had our daughter.

Ashley - posted on 03/29/2012

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and of course now my sense of smell is soo sensitive that I can smell everything kinda of hate it lol

Sarah - posted on 03/29/2012

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lol Ashley, I totally know what you mean! Mine came back while I was pregnant too. It can be very distracting when you are used to not having it.

Ashley - posted on 03/29/2012

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I know first hand what I would do lol... I went YEARS with out a sense of smell .. I was able to smell certain things but most of the time I couldn't smell anything .. it wasn't til I was pregnant with my second child that I was able to smell everything and believe me that is a weird experience lol

Sarah - posted on 03/28/2012

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Soooo sitting here trying not to giggle, but don't judge. Let me tell you why.



Since the onset of puberty I have been losing my sense of smell. As far as we know it's a genetic issue with women in my mom's side of the family. My grandmother had no sense of smell at all. My aunt has diminished sense of smell. And mine has been diminishing over the years.



It's not as big a deal as this article makes it out to be. They are right about some things though. My grandmother, who never could smell, was a horrible cook. I am still learning to cook and am sort of mild about spicing things because I don't want to go too far.



I'm not sure about taste when you have no smell but as mine has gone away I have definitely been able to eat spicier foods without being as sensitive as I used to be. I still have a sense of taste just not a "refined palette" as the phrase goes.



As far as social interactions, that made me laugh alot. The solution to that is simple. Bathe on a regular basis & you won't stink. LOL Being a mom of course I can't shower every night, so my hubby knows it is perfectly okay to tell me if I don't smell well or if I need a breath mint. He has tact. I'm blessed! ;) Never really been much for perfumes & I always check to see if he likes a new scented body wash or lotion. It affects him more than me. lol



I do have to be careful to clean in a ventilated area & all those warnings they put on the cleaner bottles. Cleaner smells don't overwhelm me but the fumes will eventually make me cough if I'm not careful. Then I know I need a fresh air break.



There are advantages though. Think about the worst poo-splosion you've had to change. Now imagine only being able to smell 25% of that. Pass a dead skunk near the road, it has to pretty much be close enough to see before it bothers me.



There are definitely worse senses to lose. Over all it really doesn't affect my daily life like being blind or deaf would. Silver linings, you know. ;)

Katherine - posted on 03/25/2012

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Sorry you're feeling that way. That must suck. I hate when my nose is plugged up!

Louise - posted on 03/25/2012

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Well I can answer this because for the last three months I have not been able to smell due to sinitus infection that just wont go away.



Although I am not as hungry and do not crave food I stil eat what I fancy and the body recalls the taste and smell of the food. I could be eatting anything! Although I can not taste at all my brain kicks in and tells me what it is supposed to taste like. It is very depressing I can tell you!



Although not being able to smell does have its advantages. My husband has done all the cooking because I am a danger in the kitchen. If I place bread under the grill it would catch fire or burn because I simply get distracted and cant smell it. I can not season food or cook from scratch as I have no idea what it tastes like!



And best of all if the puppy poops behind the chair I cant smell it, so my husband cleans that up as well.



Its that pleasure pain thing!



I am hoping for a full recovery soon as eatting is so boring without the smell and tastes of the food I love.

Nikki - posted on 03/24/2012

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The first thing I thought of is that I would be skinnier if I couldn't smell food! Big plus.

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