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Ear, Nose, and Throat Disorders

Losing Sense of Smell

02/15/1999

Question:

I am a 32 year old male from Va. My question to you is: What might be the cause of me losing my sense of smell completely?

Answer:

There are many potential causes of smell loss, but clinical experience tells us that it is most often related to one of three etiologies. Some sort of head trauma can result in a loss of smell. It almost always involves a blow to either the front or back of the head, and does not have to be severe enough necessarily to cause a general concussive injury. Nevertheless, this cause is usually fairly obvious.

An upper respiratory infection, such as a cold or flu, can result in a loss of smell. Thus once the cold symptoms have resolved, one would notice that smell has not recovered. Such a loss is not always complete, and tends to show some recovery over time, i.e. several years or more.

Underlying nasal and sinus inflammatory disease is also a common cause of smell loss. This includes problems with chronic infection and allergies. Sometimes, smell loss is the only symptom of such an underlying problem, and so a thorough examination by a physician may be worthwhile.

Unfortunately, there are many people who have lost their sense of smell without a clearly identifiable cause. The prognosis in these cases is uncertain. There are also other known causes of smell loss, but they account for only a minority of cases.

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Response by:

Allen M Seiden, MD Allen M Seiden, MD
Professor of Otolaryngology, Director of Division of Rhinology and Sinus Disorders, Director of University Taste and Smell Center, Director of University Sinus and Allergy
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati