Anosmia is the medical term for the loss of the sense of smell. Blind people have lost their sight. Deaf people have lost their ability to hear. Anosmics have lost their sense of smell. And as is true in both the loss of sight and hearing, this can affect people from birth (congenital) or it can be the result of an injury. Mine is the latter.
I became anosmic after an accident in which I badly damaged my back and took a heavy knock to the head. Thankfully, I’ve fully recovered from both the bang on my head and the back injury, but I’ve not regained my sense of smell.
When people find out that I’m anosmic, there is a list of questions that they generally work through so I will try to answers these for you here:
How do you know you can’t smell?
I know what you’re thinking. Stupid question. And that’s normally my response. But thinking about it, it is something that’s hard to test, it’s very a subjective sense. It’s not something you wake up to and it suddenly strikes you that there is no smell! I imagine that waking up blind or deaf is much more of an immediate shock.
If I magically zapped away your sense of smell, right now, as you’re reading this, I’m sure you wouldn’t notice. After a few days, you’d probably assume you’re congested. And after a few weeks, you’d just forget about it. It’s only clear that you’ve got a problem when you see something that you know smells very distinctive (good or bad) and you can’t smell a thing.
When did you realise you’d lost your sense of smell?
It wasn’t until months after the accident that I realised I had lost my sense of smell. This is normally a shock to most people. But for the reasons above, you just fob it off as a cold, congestion, or hayfever, until eventually, you become used to not smelling stuff and that becomes the new normal.
My realisation came when I was in a petrol station forecourt with my dad. I, like many others, enjoy(ed) the smell of petrol when topping up the tank. On this particular occasion, I could see the petrol fumes pouring out of the fuel tank from the car in front as they filled up, the windows were open, and the smell came in. But this time it was different, I was suddenly aware that I was tasting the petrol fumes, not smelling them.
How can you taste food? How do you eat?!
This is a tough one to answer. People who do not have Anosmia can simply taste some food, and then hold their nose and taste it again, to make a direct and instant comparison. I can’t do that. As mentioned, I wasn’t even aware that I’d lost my sense of smell until months after I had. There are foods that I like, and ones that I don’t. So in that respect, not much has changed.
Taste is technically independent of the sense of smell. Sweet, salty, sour, bitter. All of these are still present and correct for me. However, most people’s perception of ‘taste’ will be made up of around 75% smell. So smell is clearly a big part of the eating experience. A part that I no longer have.
That said, there has been one quite large change. The texture of food is now much more important to me. If you blended up two meals into a weird smoothie, I could tell you if it’s sweet, salty, sour or bitter, but I couldn’t tell you if it was chicken or pork. I couldn’t tell you if it was a carrot or a potato. But, when I eat these in a more conventional way, from a plate, I can absolutely tell what I’m eating – I can see it. And more importantly, I can feel it. The texture is now my primary form of ‘taste’ it has filled that 75% gap left by the disappearance of smell.
Interestingly Ben Cohen (the Ben from Ben & Jerry’s ice cream) is anosmic. And this is the primary reason that their ice cream contains such whopping great chunks of chocolate, banana, fudge etc. Ben kept adding chunks and increasing their size until he was happy with the flavour. Because to him, the texture was his primary sense of ‘taste’.
Do you miss being able to smell?
No, not really. Whenever smell seems to work it’s way into a conversation, it’s negative. Something smells horrible, someone’s been sick, the cat has dragged in a rotten bird carcass or the baby has released a small biological weapon into it’s nappy. So no, I don’t really miss it.
Do your other senses compensate for losing your sense of smell?
Possibly, but again it’s hard to tell. I certainly don’t have any superpowers, at least not any that I’ve discovered yet.
Well… there is one thing I can do, which is quite strange… but it’s not something that I can do on-demand. And it doesn’t happen very frequently.
I can remember some smells, and these ‘smell-memories’ can be triggered by visuals, stories, people, anything. And yes, that includes film and television programmes.
You may think I have lost my sense of smell, but really I’ve gained the power of smell-o-vision.