Taste and smell are two of our most important senses and we often assume that we will always be able to use them. These precious senses help us enjoy foods and appreciate their delicious flavors. Besides, being able to taste and smell can also protect us against potential dangers such as poisons, fires, or gases. The loss of taste and smell can be very alarming. The two are closely linked together and, in fact, without the sense of smell we are not able to fully taste things.
How Dose Taste and Smell Work?
Taste involves five different types, including salty, sour, sweet, umami, and bitter. Beyond that, taste is limited without smell. We detect taste through our taste buds that are mostly located on the top of the tongue. Our brain registers signals from the taste buds to tell us what we are tasting. The subtle part of taste actually comes from smell receptors, located in the upper part of the nose. We can put things in our mouth and detect their specific tastes as the smell from the food goes up into the nose.
The senses of taste and smell are chemical in nature and are a part of chemosensation. What happens during the act of taste and smell is that the small molecules emitted by the food we eat stimulate cells in the throat, nose and mouth. The cells are neurological in nature and send signals to our brain so that the brain can identify what the tastes and smells really are.
The olfactory cells in the nose are activated by the smells we experience, such as the aroma of a rose or the smell of roast chicken. These cells are located above the cribriform plate in the nose and are connected closely to brain cells.
The gustatory cells are located within the taste buds inside our throat and mouth. When we eat, foods and beverages are mixed with saliva and the molecules from them are picked up by the cells in the taste buds, which in turn interact with nerve fibers connected. It is these nerve fibers that send messages to the brain to help identify the taste of what you eat.
What Could Cause Loss of Taste and Smell?
There are many things that can result in the losing taste and smell, which include:
- Being of an older age. We begin to lose our sense of taste and smell after the age of 30. This is because the nerve cells in the nose become degenerated, along with a decrease in the sensitivity of the taste buds.
- Smoking. This can damage the membranes in the nose so we can’t tell the difference between smells and have a loss of taste.
- Radiation therapy or nervous system diseases. These can all attribute to the loss of smell and taste. For example, diseases of the nervous system can interrupt the process of signaling taste and smell as explained in the previous part.
- Nasal polyps. These are abnormal growths in the nose that block the passage of smells from mouth to nose so the cells cannot pick up the subtle differences in the food we eat.
- Sinusitis. This can result in a blockage in the air passages so that the food molecules can’t reach the receptors in the nose.
- Gum disease. If you suffer from gingivitis, you can also have an impaired sense of taste and smell.
- Vitamin B12 or Zinc deficiency. You need these two components to be able to taste and smell things.
- Congenital anosmia. This is a condition in which you are born with the inability to smell anything. This makes food seem tasteless.
- Viral infections. If you have an upper respiratory infection, it can be accompanied by a decreased sense of taste and smell. However, the senses will come back once recovered.
- Head trauma. If you have a certain type of head trauma, you can damage the sense of smell in the brain.
- Brain tumor.Non-malignant tumors of the brain can affect the olfactory nerves, resulting in a loss of taste and smell.
- Alzheimer’s disease. People with Alzheimer’s disease do not taste and smell things the same after developing the condition.
- Parkinson’s disease. In this disease, there is damage to nerve cells so you do not taste and smell things the same.
- Medications. ACE inhibitors and some beta blockers will also block the senses of taste and smell.
Can I Get Tested for Loss of Taste and Smell?
You should see an ENT specialist if you believe you have lost your sense of taste and smell. The doctor will do an examination and may use a flexible endoscopic device to see what is going on inside your nose. You can be tested for allergies, which affect your senses. Sometimes a CT or MRI scan can be done in order to make sure there aren’t any problems in the brain that could cause impaired tasting and smelling.
How Should I Deal with Taste and Smell Loss?
If you have lost your sense of taste or smell, you should try to find out the underlying cause of the problem. Try to identify when it first happened, such as during the flu or a bad cold. Could there have been allergens in the air that contributed to your loss of taste and smell? Does it happen often or every once in a while?
Inform the doctor these answers may help him/her identify the cause of your problem. The diagnosis might be something that is reversible so you can gain your senses again. Many times, if you deal with the underlying problem appropriately, you can get back your sense of taste and smell.
Losing your sense of taste and smell can also present potential threats to your safety. Here are some reasons why:
- An inability to detect gas in your home. You need your sense of smell in order to tell if a gas appliance in your home is damaged. If you are suffering from loss of taste and smell, switch to electric appliances, or get a detector that will sense natural gas for you.
- An inability to tell if food is safe to eat. You run the risk of food poisoning if you can’t smell whetherthe food is fresh or not. If you can’t smell, you may need to ask people to smell the food for you and you should always check the dates on the packages so that you don’t eat something that might cause food poisoning. Make sure you put foods in the refrigerator after opening them and look for discoloration of food before preparing it.
- An inability to get adequate nutrition. If you can’t taste or smell food, this usually reduces your appetite. Step on the scale on a regular basis to make sure you aren’t losing weight. Cook with ingredients that have a lot of color and flavor to it so you have the best chance of enjoying the food.