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Problems with Smell: Treatment and Research



Although there is no treatment for presbyosmia -- loss of smell due to aging -- relief from smell disorders is possible for many older people. Depending on the cause of your problem with smell, your doctor may be able to treat your problem with smell or suggest ways to handle it. Scientists are studying how our sense of smell works so that new treatments can be developed.

What Can I Do about Smell Loss?Sometimes a certain medication causes a smell disorder, and improvement occurs when the medicine causing the problem is stopped or changed. Although certain medications can cause a loss of smell, others -- in particular, anti-allergy medicines -- seem to improve smell and sometimes taste.

If you take medications, ask your doctor if they can affect your sense of smell. If so, ask if you could substitute other medications or reduce the dose. Your doctor will work with you to get the medicine you need while trying to reduce unwanted side effects.

Other common causes of smell loss, like the common cold or seasonal allergies, are usually temporary. Smell is regained by waiting for the illness to run its course. In some cases, nasal obstructions, such as polyps, can be removed to restore airflow through the nasal passages and restore the sense of smell.

Your doctor may suggest oral steroid medications like prednisone, which is usually used for a short period of time, or topical steroid sprays, which can be used chronically. Occasionally, the sense of smell returns to normal on its own without any treatment.

If you have a problem with smell, there are some things you can do:

  • Wait it out. If you have had a cold with a stuffy nose, chances are in a few days your sense of smell will return. However, you should not wait to see your doctor if you think something more serious has caused your loss of smell or you have had the problem for a while. Loss of smell can sometimes mean a more serious condition exists.

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  • Sweat it out. If your nose is stuffed up from a cold, sometimes mild exercise or the steam from a hot shower may open up your nasal passages.

  • Stop smoking. Smoking causes long-term damage to your sense of smell. If you quit smoking, you may notice some improvement.

  • Check with your doctor. If your sense of smell seems to have disappeared, changed, or you've noticed the problem for a while, see your doctor for help. Sometimes, especially with a sinus infection, taking antibiotics for a short period of time may remedy the problem. If there is a blockage or you have a chronic sinus condition, outpatient surgery may be called for.

If you do not regain your sense of smell, there are things you should do to ensure your safety. Take extra precautions to avoid eating food that may have spoiled. If you live with other people, ask them to smell the food to see if it is fresh. People who live alone should discard food if there is a chance it is spoiled. Other home safety measures include installing smoke alarms and gas detectors.

For those who wish to have additional help, there may be support groups in your area. These are often associated with smell and taste clinics. Some on-line bulletin boards also allow people with smell disorders to share their experiences. Not all people with smell disorders will regain their sense of smell, but most can learn to live with it.

The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders funds basic and clinical studies of smell disorders. Scientists are working to understand more about the sense of smell so that new treatments can be developed to help restore the sense of smell to people who have lost it.

Scientists are finding out more about how our sense of smell works and how we detect and smell the many different compounds that form odors. These findings are helping scientists study the sense of smell as a model for other sensory systems in the body.

Like other senses in our bodies, our sense of smell can be greatly affected simply by growing older. Researchers are studying why and how these age-related changes in smell occur.

Also, smell cells -- and taste cells -- are the only sensory cells that are regularly replaced throughout life. Understanding why this happens may help researchers develop ways to replace damaged sensory cells, and restore smell.

Scientists have found that loss of smell affects the choices an older person makes about eating certain foods. They are looking at how and why this takes place in order to develop more effective ways to help older people -- especially those with chronic illnesses -- cope better with problems with smell.

Quiz

1. People sometimes regain their sense of smell once an illness has run its course.

TRUE is the correct answer. Some common causes of smell disorders, like the common cold, upper respiratory infections, and seasonal allergies, are usually temporary and smell returns when the illness has run its course.

2. You should hold off on seeing your doctor if you have had a problem with your sense of smell for a while.

FALSE is the correct answer. You should see your doctor if you have had the problem with your sense of smell for a while or if you think the cause may be serious. Sometimes, loss of smell can mean a more serious condition exists.

3. If you have lost your sense of smell, you should install a gas detector and smoke alarm in your home.

TRUE is the correct answer. People with smell disorders need to take extra precautions to ensure their safety, because they cannot detect potentially dangerous situations such as a gas leak. Home safety measures include installing smoke alarms and gas detectors.

4. All people with smell disorders will eventually regain their sense of smell.

FALSE is the correct answer. Not all people with smell disorders will regain their sense of smell, but most can learn to live with it. Counseling, support groups, and other self-help techniques can help older people cope with loss of smell.

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