Introducing: Ask a Doctor
At UTHSC ENT, we understand that patients need clear, helpful answers to their questions. We also know that a flood of new information can be overwhelming.
That’s why our department’s introducing Ask a Doctor: an ongoing series of posts that tackle Frequently Asked Questions about common issues. We hope these articles give you a better understanding of your situation and an easy path to treatment.
Today, we’re giving an overview of a common concern: taste and smell disorders.
Prepared by: Jake Jordan
Reviewed by: Dr. Sanjeet Rangarajan
What are taste and smell disorders?
There are several possible disorders of taste and/or smell with a wide range of possible causes. Problems affecting one sense can sometimes affect the other, which is why these disorders are often linked together.
As an overview, there are a variety of possible issues affecting these senses, including:
- Dysosmia (changes in perception of smells)
- Hyposmia (reduced ability to smell)
- Hyperosmia (enhanced ability to smell)
- Anosmia (complete loss of ability to smell)
- Dygeusia or paraguesia (distortion of taste, can include ageusia or hypogeusia)
- Hypogeusia (reduced ability to taste)
- Ageusia (complete loss of taste)
How do I know if I have a taste or smell disorder?
Taste and smell are not easily measurable, so detection of problems with these senses are typically noticed and reported by the individual. Additionally, smell is closely linked with taste, so reduction or loss of the ability to smell will also affect the ability to taste.
Possible signs of a taste or smell disorder could be:
- Noticing a familiar taste/smell is different than it used to be
- Not noticing strong taste/odors that other people notice
- Increased sensitivity to taste/odors
What causes taste disorders?
Taste disorders have many causes, including:
- Side effect of certain drugs
- Chemotherapy, which can directly damage taste receptors or indirectly affect taste by affecting saliva production
- Radiation therapy
- Zinc deficiency, which can inhibit the body’s ability to repair taste buds
- Dry mouth
- Nerve injury to the major nerves responsible for taste
- Brain injury to the areas of the brain responsible for taste
What causes smell disorders?
Much like taste disorders, there are many possible causes for disorders of smell:
- Upper respiratory tract infections (such as infections of the sinuses, nose, mouth, or throat)
- Sinus disease
- Nasal surgery
- Dental problems
- Damage to olfactory nerves
- Toxic chemical exposure
- Head trauma
- Certain brain tumors
- Some neurological disorders (such as schizophrenia and depression)
Is it true that COVID-19 can affect my ability to smell and/or taste?
Yes, COVID-19 has been reported to cause reduced or loss of ability to smell and/or taste in some cases.
For those experiencing this symptom, the CDC reports that this symptom lasts an average of 8 days following the date of the positive COVID-19 test, although occasionally it can last for a longer period of time.
What should I do if I suspect I have a smell or taste disorder?
There are times when the cause of a smell or taste disorder will be readily apparent. For instance, if you recently contracted a cold, tested positive for COVID-19, or recently underwent nasal/sinus surgery, you might naturally regain your sense of taste after healing from the disease.
However, if the change has no apparent cause or has lingered long after the suspected initial cause has cleared up, then scheduling an appointment with your physician or an otolaryngologist would be an appropriate next step.
How can I be tested?
Some physicians administer a taste test. In a taste test panel, the physician would expose your taste buds to a variety of solutions designed to test your ability to recognize certain tastes. By comparing a patient’s reaction to being administered various tastes (such as salty, sweet, sour, or bitter liquids) against a threshold, a diagnosis of the taste function can be obtained. Other versions of taste tests involve the use of electrodes to electrically stimulate your taste buds.
In addition to taste tests, the sense of smell can be tested using tests as well. This could involve the recognition of odors from a standardized scratch-and-sniff booklet. These tests are then scored and can report whether a patient suffers from anosmia, hyperosmia, hyposmia, or other smell disorder.
Your doctor may recommend other tests and procedures (nasal endoscopy, MRI, or others) to evaluate your symptoms as well.
What are some potential treatments?
Because the causes of smell and taste disorders vary widely, possible treatments vary as well.
For reduced taste sensation caused by medication, it might be feasible to adjust medications. If switching medications is not an option, increasing production of saliva by stimulating salivary glands via medication or other means could be possibilities. In other situations, medications or simply time may be required.
If you think you are experiencing problems with your sense of smell or taste, reach out to us so we can help.
Smell retraining (referred to as olfactory training, or OT) can also be helpful for some people who have lost their sense of smell due to infection. In smell retraining, patients can expose themselves to specific scents and attempt to re-establish memory of that scent. Typically, four scent categories are used: floral (rose), fruity (lemon), spicy (cloves), and resinous (eucalyptus).
In this method, patients sniff the odor for about 15 seconds, twice for each scent, in the morning and evening. While performing these sniff tests, patients should focus on their memory of the scent and the current scent. Typically, this would be done for up to 6 months. Reports estimate that 15-50% of patients can experience improvement in smell using this method.
There are also pre-made scented products that can aid in smell retraining. Consult with your doctor about your options for this therapy.
How can our Dream Team help?
UTHSC ENT’s Dream Team provides world class treatment in your hometown, and our sinus & allergy division is nationally-renowned.