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Loss of sense of smell

A loss of sense of smell can be a disorientating symptom, as it has a significant effect on our memories. Losing your sense of smell is almost always accompanied by a loss of taste, and it can be triggered by a health condition or a sudden accident or illness.

  • Often caused by a viral infection
  • Severe trauma can result in a permanent loss of smell
  • Treatment may require changing your current medication

If you have lost your sense of smell and are worried about it not coming back, you may want to seek assurance from a doctor. Using our online video consultation service, our GMC-registered clinicians can issue advice, referrals to specialists for treatment and prescriptions, where suitable. They are available between 9.30am and 4.30pm, Monday to Friday.

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Possible causes

What causes a loss of sense of smell?

Viral infections are the most common cause of a loss of sense of smell, such as colds, flu or problems with the sinuses. Sometimes a doctor can’t identify the cause, and it is thought this occurs in around 20% of cases which are referred to a specialist clinic.

Other common triggers for a loss of sense of smell include:

  • A severe injury to the head, which damages the nerves
  • Allergies which congest the nose
  • Cigarette smoking over many years
  • Exposure to certain chemicals
  • Exposure to radiotherapy

It’s also possible that medications can have an effect on sense of smell. They include:

  • Medications for the thyroid
  • Antibiotics such as amoxicillin or trimethoprim
  • Antidepressants
  • Anti-inflammatory medicines and antihistamines.

Diagnosing the cause of a loss of sense of smell

In order to diagnose what the cause of losing your sense of smell is, a doctor is likely to ask you about recent events which could have led to it. They may also examine your nose and perform some tests.

A doctor will inquire as to how the loss of smell came about, and the nature of the loss. For example, is it only specific smells that are affected, or is it a complete sensory loss? They will also ask if you can still taste food, or whether this has also been impacted.

It’s important to inform a doctor if you have recently come into contact with potent chemicals, or have suffered from a severe head injury.

After a clinician has established what your medical history is, they are likely to refer you to an ENT clinic, so that an endoscopic examination of the nose can take place. This involves passing a small camera into the nose to see if there is any damaged tissue.

There are various tests that a doctor may conduct to assess the tissue in the nose. This often involves a comparison of the strength of different chemicals in terms of smell, and an identification of distinctive smells. 

A healthcare professional from an ENT clinic may also decide to apply solutions to all sides of the tongue (to measure taste), to see which areas are functioning.

Measuring taste is important as it is closely related to smell. Both smell and taste involve the use of chemoreceptors, which are sensory cells in the lining of the nose and on the tongue. They function by passing electrical impulses to the brain, which interprets them and recognises them as certain smells.

Occasionally, it may be necessary to test patients for allergies. A doctor may also in rare cases recommend imaging with a CT or MRI scan to confirm a diagnosis.

Losing your sense of smell can be distressing if you cannot work out why it has occured, but one of our GPhC-registered clinicians may be able to help. You can speak to them by booking an appointment via our online video consultation service. Consultations are available between 9.30am and 4.30pm, five days a week.

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020
Types of Treatment

How is a loss of sense of smell treated?

In order to treat a loss of sense of smell, the underlying cause needs to be ascertained. If the cause is temporary, then often no treatment is necessary, but for nasal obstructions or bacterial infections, treatment is required.

A temporary loss of sense of smell can occur in people who smoke regularly, or who have a seasonal allergy. It’s also common if someone has a cold or other viral infection resulting in a congested nasal passage, which will return to normal once the infection has passed.

A doctor may recommend desensitizing shots, which work in the same way as an immunisation injection. Although they’re not widely recommended, some anti-allergy medications can restore the sense of smell.

In the event that the sinuses or nasal passage is severely obstructed, surgical removal may be the best option. Giving up smoking is advised for people whose loss of sense of smell is triggered by it. 

If head trauma is the cause of a loss of sense of smell, the nerves may be damaged, but they can repair themselves over time. It is thought that depending on the site of head trauma, recovery can take up to 10 years in 50% of cases.

If the cause is related to certain medications or a consistent exposure to certain chemicals, a doctor will recommend changing your medication accordingly. Medications such as intranasal sprays, nifedipine and phenothiazines have all been known to result in a loss of sense of smell.

There are many possible causes of a loss of sense of smell, and it is not always easy to establish what’s triggered it. If you have recently lost your sense of smell and would like some advice, you may want to speak to one of our GMC-registered clinicians via our online video consultation service. They can be contacted between 9.30am and 4.30pm, five days a week, and can provide advice, referrals for treatment, and prescriptions, where suitable. 

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020
Questions and Answers

How long is it normal to have a loss of sense of smell for?

A loss of sense of smell can vary from a temporary symptom of a self-limiting condition to a permanent condition. It can return to normal having been lost for a few weeks or months. 

In the event of a head trauma resulting in a loss of sense of smell, it’s thought that it can return at some point within the next 10 years in 50% of cases.

Is a loss of sense of smell serious?

A loss of sense of smell is usually a result of a temporary condition such as a cold or a seasonal allergy, which will pass in a few days. However, it can also occur as a consequence of severe damage to nerves from head trauma. It may become serious if it starts to prevent someone from eating because they cannot taste food, which can lead to malnutrition and weight loss.

Can I get treatment for loss of sense of smell?

Treatment for a loss of sense of smell involves treating the underlying condition, if there is one. If the cause is temporary and related to a viral infection or a seasonal allergy, there are various treatments that can help with irritation or blockages in the nose, such as nasal sprays and decongestants. If there is an obstruction in the nasal passage, it may be necessary for it to be surgically removed.

How can I prevent a loss of sense of smell?

There are no particular measures that you can take to prevent a loss of sense of smell. 

It can help to avoid inhaling potentially toxic chemicals, refraining from taking certain medications which are associated with causing it, and giving up smoking.

Can I speak to a doctor about loss of sense of smell?

If you are concerned about a loss of sense of smell, one of our registered clinicians may be able to help. You can book an appointment via our online video consultation service between 9.30am-4.30pm, Monday to Friday. Our clinicians will be able to issue advice about your symptoms, treatment options, and prescriptions and referrals to specialists, where appropriate.

Page last reviewed:  11/06/2020

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