Olfactory disorders: when our nose plays tricks

Olfactory disorders are diverse: distortion or complete loss of olfaction, our nose can play tricks on us...

Perfumes and scents represent a world where everyone can have fun with notes, compositions and memories. Rather almost everyone. Today one-sixth of the population suffers from a variety of olfactory disorders. Our primary sense, however intuitive it may seem, can sometimes fail to make us experience smells differently. Cacosmia, anosmia or phantosmia are all ailments that distort or completely stop our sense of smell. Whether they are due to old age or various traumas, our noses can play tricks on us.

Our nose, that prankster

We already mentioned it in the article on the power of olfactory memory: sense of smell is one of our oldest and most powerful sensory perceptions. From a physiological point of view, the path taken by a smell is always the same. When we breathe in, odorous molecules enter our nose. They are collected by our “internal sensors” called olfactory neurons. Then they are transmitted to the part of our brain that interprets and dissect odors: the olfactory bulb. When the sense of smell functions normally, specialists call it normosmia. But sometimes, as a result of all kinds of trauma, these neurons are damaged, leading to a poor perception of the smell we breathe.

Like a strange smell…

Being the only one to smell a burning scent, having the impression of being taunted by phantom odors, while other smells have completely disappeared, or having your nostrils constantly tickled by an unpleasant smell without adopting dubious hygiene… So many indications that an olfactory disorder may be affecting you. But how exactly do they manifest themselves?

The various olfactory disorders

Loss of hearing or sight are well-known sensory disorders. However, those concerning the sense of smell often remain anonymous. Far from being exceptional and harmless, here are the two main categories that define them:

  • Anosmia: corresponds to a significant or even total loss of smell. Anosmia can be temporary or permanent. It can also be specific, when only certain smells are affected by the disorder.
  • Dysosmias: they include all the disturbances related to our sense of smell.

Among the disorders that disturb our perception of odors, there are several cases:

  • Cacosmia: it is the constant perception of an unpleasant or even fetid odor, without anything under the soles or without external elements from our environment. In reality, the odor smelled often emanates from the body of the affected person, mostly caused by a dental infection, or from the sinuses.
  • Parosmia: this is a disorder of the sense of smell that causes a distortion of the perception of odors. A once pleasant smell becomes unbearable and sufferers find themselves confusing olfactory stimuli among themselves, taking one smell for another. Parosmia is a symptom found in some cases of Parkinson’s disease.
  • Phantosmia: here we talk about olfactory hallucination. The body perceives smells that do not actually exist. According to a study by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), 1 out of 15 Americans suffer from it. According to the researchers, phantosmia could result from exposure to pollutants or toxic products, or from repeated use of certain drug treatments. It can be indicative of psychological disorders.

The causes

But how can these olfactory disorders be triggered? Without being an alarmist, everyone can one day or another lose their sense of smell, partially or totally, temporarily or permanently. The first explanation is very simple: as we get older, our sensory ability to decipher and analyze smells becomes less efficient, as does our sight and hearing, which decrease. This is called presbyosmia.

Our lifestyle can also affect our nose: tobacco, pollution… so many factors that saturate our olfactory sensors. During certain periods of life, and particularly during pregnancy for women, sensitivity to odors can on the contrary be increased tenfold. This is hyperosmia. Some people naturally have this ability to detect odors that others do not even smell. Luck or misfortune, it all depends on smells! Finally, if the sense of smell disorders appear at any age, it is because they are due to a pathology; a simple cold, head trauma, or even a more serious illness, it is always important to “listen” to your nose, which can sometimes reveal more serious ailments.

Rehabilitate your nose? Yes you can!

If certain anosmias or other olfactory disorders are irreversible, it is sometimes possible to re-educate the nose to teach it again to react normally to stimulation. Olfactory re-education consists of smelling several characteristic odors every day for several weeks. To tame their nose, patients breathe in bottles containing rose, eucalyptus, clove or lemon extracts twice a day for 10 seconds. This olfactory gymnastic lasts about three months. The rehabilitation cannot continue any longer because of the phenomenon of odor saturation, as when you no longer really smell your own perfume after wearing it for a long time. The practice is quite recent, but it opens up amazing new possibilities concerning the sensory perceptions of humans.

And if you do not suffer from any sense of smell problems but just want to train your nose, you can find all our tips here.

A world without smell

Although these disorders are still largely unknown, they prove to be very disabling in everyday life. Dysosmias, and even more so anosmia, are unfortunately often neglected by people (who find it difficult to imagine a world without smell) and by the medical profession (which is still poorly trained). In addition to losing the notion of smells, even the most familiar ones, anosmic patient will also fatally lose taste. This unpleasant experience we have all lived while having a big cold. The quality of life diminishes, and the emotional flavor of the odors causes a real lack in those affected. Beyond that, the sense of smell also acts as a warning system for the body. Smoke, spoiled food or chemicals are olfactory clues to danger. For anosmic people, the risk of domestic accidents is therefore much more common.

Were you aware of these different sense of smell disorders? Try to imagine a life without any smell…

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