Experiencing a loss of taste or smell? Learn more about what causes it and how to get your senses back after a sinus infection.
Have you ever noticed that a certain food didn’t taste as good as it used to? Or that a once pungent smell didn’t bother you as much? Maybe you took a whiff of those spring flowers and smelled… nothing! While certainly alarming, this is most likely a result of a very common condition called anosmia, or the loss of your sense of smell.
Since our smell and taste buds are so closely linked, any conditions or irritants that cause swelling in the nasal passages can lead to a loss of smell and therefore taste. While typically just a temporary nuisance, loss of smell can also pose a dangerous threat, as your sense of smell is responsible for alerting you to dangers like gas leaks, rotten food, or fire. And because it affects your sense of taste, it can also lead to loss of interest in eating that results in unwanted weight loss and malnutrition.
How Does Loss of Smell Happen?
The nerves responsible for detecting smell (olfactory nerves) are located high and deep inside the nose. When you have a cold or sinusitis, your nose fills with mucus and causes swelling. Because of this mucus and inflammation, the smell can’t reach the top of the nasal cavity — this results in a total or a partial loss of smell.
What Causes Loss of Taste & Smell and How to Get Them Back
Colds, sinus infections, and general congestion are the most common causes of temporary loss of smell. Typically, your sense of smell will return as your congestion clears up. While this is the most common offender, there are plenty of other issues that can lead to loss of smell or taste. These include:
- Sinus infections
- Nasal polyps
- Certain medications
- Neurological conditions
- Trauma to the head
- Radiation therapy
- Over-exposure to certain chemicals
- Upper Respiratory Infection
Most commonly, upper respiratory infections are the cause of loss of smell and taste. This includes common colds and flus which cause nasal congestion.
Upper respiratory infections can be treated with over-the-counter (OTC) medications like antihistamines, decongestants, cough medicines, cough drops, and flu medicines. Home remedies like nasal irrigations or nasal sprays may also help alleviate congestion.
As your cold or flu clears up, your smell and taste should return within a few days, though some viral infections can cause permanent damage to your sense of taste.
A Note On COVID-19
Many people who test positive for COVID-19 note a loss of taste and smell as a primary symptom. While this could be related to congestion or swelling inside of the nose, the cause isn’t entirely clear.
Loss of taste or smell can be an indicator of COVID-19, even with no other symptoms present. Don’t hesitate to speak with a doctor about testing or sign up for a test with a community provider. If you test positive, follow guidelines for quarantine and take OTC medications for pain and fever.
For many COVID-19 survivors, taste and smell return to normal as symptoms clear up. However, others experience a long-term loss of smell and taste. Experts are still researching the ongoing effects of COVID-19, and a reason for this persistent loss remains unknown.
Allergies can cause severe congestion in the nose, which makes them a common culprit for loss of smell and taste.
Allergies can be treated with both OTC and prescription medications, including antihistamines, nasal sprays, allergy drops, and allergy shots. As your allergy symptoms improve, so should your loss of smell and taste.
Sinus infections lead to inflammation in the nose and therefore nasal stuffiness. Many sinus infections cause either full or partial loss of smell and taste.
Sinus infections are typically treated with OTC pain medications and prescription antibiotics. Recurring sinusitis can be addressed with a balloon sinuplasty procedure. As symptoms improve, most people regain their sense of smell and taste.
Nasal polyps are non-cancerous tissue growths that occur inside of the nasal cavity. While they are typically very small, they can obstruct airflow in the nasal passages and lead to congestion, breathing issues, and sinus infections.
Anti-inflammatory medications, such as oral or nasal steroids, can reduce the size of your nasal polyps and help alleviate symptoms. However, if your nasal polyps are large and cannot be treated with medications, a nasal polyp surgery procedure is recommended.
Reducing the size of or eliminating nasal polyps usually leads to people regaining their sense of smell and taste.
There are several medications associated with an altered or loss of taste. Some drugs can cause food to taste different, leaving a metallic, salty, or bitter taste behind.
These medications include certain:
- Allergy medicines
- Asthma medications
- Cholesterol medicines
- Blood thinners
- Seizure medications
- And more
These taste changes are usually temporary and improve when you stop taking the particular medication.
Conditions that affect the brain (like Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease) are linked to loss of smell and taste because the brain is responsible for processing these senses. These diseases impact the olfactory bulb, the part of the brain where your smell nerves live, and loss of smell can be an early sign of the disease. It’s important to note that loss of smell does not mean you are more susceptible to these neurological conditions.
As we get older, many factors can have an impact on our sense of taste and smell. These include:
- Dental issues
- Dry mouth
- Certain medications
- Alcohol consumption
- Less mucus production in the nose
- Loss of nerve endings
- Changes in taste buds
While some of this loss is a natural result of getting older, an ENT specialist may be able to help you pinpoint the cause of your loss of smell and taste and offer solutions.
According to statistics, smokers are six times more likely than non-smokers to have a poor sense of smell. Smoking can also dull or kill your taste buds by altering the amount of blood flow to your taste buds. The good news — quitting smoking (or reducing your exposure to second-hand smoke) can quickly improve your sense of smell and taste.
Because the brain plays such a big part in processing smell and taste, a head injury can potentially impact your sense of smell and taste. If your olfactory nerves (the nerves in your brain responsible for processing smell) are damaged, you could experience permanent or temporary loss of smell. With time and healing, your sense of smell and taste could return to normal.
Radiation therapy targeted at the head or neck area can cause damage to your taste buds and salivary glands. This can result in a loss or diminished sense of taste. These taste changes typically improve after radiation treatment ends. However, some of these damages can be permanent.
Over-exposure to certain harsh chemicals, like insecticides and solvents, can burn the inside of your nose and cause permanent damage to the nasal tissue and smell sensors. This damage leads to loss of smell and affects your ability to taste, as well.
These chemicals include:
- Methacrylate vapors
- Hydrogen sulfide
- Sulfuric acid
When Should I See a Doctor?
If you lose your sense of smell and taste because of a cold or sinus infection, give yourself some time. Your smell and taste should return within a few days of the cold clearing up. Consider making an appointment with an ENT specialist if you answer yes to any of the following:
- Is my loss of smell and taste unexplainable?
- Has it come on suddenly?
- Has it lasted more than a few days?
- Is it severe?
An ENT specialist can determine the underlying cause of your loss of smell. This process will include a series of questions to understand your symptoms and onset. It may also include several tests, including an X-ray, CT scan, MRI, or a nasal endoscopy to see inside your nose.
After understanding the cause of your loss of smell, your ENT specialist can offer treatment options. This may be as simple as an OTC decongestant or may require a surgical procedure to remove obstructions.
Let Us Help You Get Your Senses Back
While most often, loss of smell and taste is a temporary inconvenience, there may be underlying issues that require medical attention. Our ENT specialists at Advanced Allergy & ENT will work with you to discover your underlying issues and help offer a treatment plan that will get you back to smelling and tasting like normal!