Sensory Dysfunction

Overview

Why are smell and taste important?

Your senses of smell and taste let you fully enjoy the scents and flavors of foods and drinks. These senses also help protect you from food poisoning and warn you of dangers such as fire, polluted air and poisonous chemicals.

Is there a difference between taste and flavor?

Yes. The basic tastes are salty, sweet, bitter and sour. Flavor involves both taste and smell. For example, because a person is able to smell a chocolate bar while eating it, the chocolate not only tastes sweet but also has the flavor of chocolate. The flavor of chocolate candy might not be as good if you couldn’t smell it and taste it at the same time.

Symptoms

What can happen if I have trouble with my sense of smell or taste?

If you can’t smell or taste your food, your appetite might decrease. You might use too much sugar and salt to try to make your food taste better. This can be a problem if you have diabetes or high blood pressure.

Causes & Risk Factors

What can cause problems with my ability to smell or taste?

Nose or sinus problems might affect your sense of smell. Your sinuses might be swollen or polyps (tiny growths) might block your nose passages.

Infections (such as colds or the flu) or a head injury might affect your ability to smell. Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease can also make people lose their sense of smell.

Infection or inflammation (redness and swelling) in your mouth can cause loss of taste. Head injury and Bell’s palsy (an inflammation of the nerves in the face) can sometimes also affect the ability to taste.

Some medicines (such as antibiotics and medicines for blood pressure) can affect your ability to smell and taste. Cigarette smoking, certain chemicals and a lack of vitamins or minerals (such as vitamin B12 and zinc) can also cause problems with taste and smell.

Treatment

What can I do about this problem?

Talk to your family doctor. If a medicine is causing the problem, your doctor might have you stop taking the medicine or take a different medicine. Then you might be able to taste and smell again. But don’t stop taking a medicine unless your doctor tells you to.

If you have an infection or an allergy, treatment might help. Your doctor can tell you what treatment is best for you.

If you smoke, you should quit. Not only will your sense of taste and smell improve, but your overall health will improve, too.

Some people permanently lose the ability to smell or taste normally. But it is still possible to improve the appeal of food. Your doctor can give you tips for fixing food in ways that will increase your enjoyment of it.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

  • Nothing tastes as good as it used to. What could be causing this?

  • What can I do to bring back my sense of smell/taste?

  • I used to smoke. Could that still be causing problems?

  • When I started taking an antibiotic, my sense of taste seemed to change. Should I stop taking the antibiotic?

  • If I lose my sense of smell/taste, should I go to the doctor to find out what is causing it?

Citations

  • Smell and Taste Disorders: A Primary Care Approach by SM Bromley, M.D.( 01/15/00, http://www.aafp.org/afp/20000115/427.html)