September 10, 2009

Anosmia FAQ

I can't smell.

I have congenital anosmia, meaning I have never been able to smell. Since people usually have never heard of this condition, they tend to ask the same kind of questions. So, as a way of informing you about anosmia in general, and as an illustration of how unimaginative people are, here's a collection of things I get asked very often.


Q: What do you mean, you can't smell?
A: It simple, really. I just can't smell anything. My nose doesn't work. It's like being blind or deaf, except that your sense of smell is lacking, rather than your sight or hearing.

Q: Do you have a cold?
A: No I don't have a cold.

Q: Are you taking the mick out of me?
A: No I'm not joking. Check Wikipedia or WrongDiagnosis. I'm not making this up.

Q: So you really can't smell anything?
A: No.

Q: Can you smell food, or flowers? Or farts?
A: NO.

Q: Can you smell perfume?
A: Is it the 'N' or the 'O' that you don't get?

Q: How come you can't smell?
A: I don't know, really. I was born that way.

Q: Isn't it nice that you can't smell all the bad things, like garbage trucks or people with body odour?
A: Yeah I guess so. Now imagine if I lost all my other senses as well, I wouldn't be able to hear all the bad music and tragic news in the radio, or see all the ugly people and buildings in this world, or feel any pain whatsoever. I'd be the happiest man on Earth. Right?
Also, I'd like to point out that being being unable to smell the dog poo you trod in this morning, is not an advantage.

Q: Can you taste?
A: Why does this question always crop up? Blaaaargh! See? I've got a tongue. That's all you need in order to taste stuff.

Q: But when I pinch my nose I can't taste anything. So how come you can taste if you can't smell?
A: I dare you to pinch your nose and then take a large bite out of a lemon. Then think about your first statement again.

Q: If you can't use your nose, then you can only taste sweet, salt, sour, and bitter (plus umami if we are to believe those zany Japanese). So doesn't that mean that you can't taste as much as normal people?
A: There's some truth hidden in this, but I'd like to be precise about the vocabulary we use here. 'Taste' is the the sensorial input we get from out tongue, 'smell' is what we get from our nose. Combine these two, and you get 'flavour'. Often, however, people mistakenly use the word 'taste' when they mean 'flavour', because they don't realise that at least 3/4 of the experience they get from eating is actually provided by their nose. So in my case, I don't get all of the flavour (I lack the smelling part), but I certainly get all the taste. What this means in practice, is that the sensorial input I get is different from what you get, probably weaker. Most spices affect the taste of the food very little (with a few exceptions like curry or pepper), so words like "parsley" or "saffron" mean nothing to me, and I'm still amazed that other people can actually tell the difference between those. The difference between canned food and fresh food is almost non-distinguishable in my mouth - as long as we're talking about the same product, of course. A lot of kinds of tea taste exactly the same to me, although I've heard someone say that this is not too unusual. Also, a lot of sweets are based on smell, so something that is meant to taste like strawberry, simply has a nice sweet taste to me. However, saying that I'm limited to four basic tastes is very misleading, since everything still has its own taste to me. To take an example where texture and temperature give no hints: I can taste the difference between apple juice, orange juice, ananas juice, grape juice, cranberry juice, blueberry juice, tropical juice, ... Heck, sometimes I can even taste the difference between different brands of water (as long as they're not too similar). I don't like the taste of salad, and I prefer milk chocolate to dark chocolate, so saying I can't taste is plain wrong.
Something that is also worth taking into account, is that since I don't get the smell of food, I tend to focus on other things such as temperature and (especially) texture. Nothing beats the feeling of teeth slowly grinding through the flesh of a ripe apple. Fried potatoes is the perfect balance between soft and crunchy. "Squishy" foods, however, like mushrooms, make me want to gag. Redberries have a nice taste, but they get stuck in the teeth afterwards. And so on.

I think the best analogy I've heard, is that being anosmic is like being totally colour blind. When you watch TV, you can still see everything that is going on, and understand it perfectly, you just don't get the colours. In the same way, when you can't smell, you can still enjoy food and get the taste, but you don't get the full experience because you're lacking the smell.

There are other much more interesting questions, but I never get asked those. I'll include a few of these Unfrequently Asked Qustions, for fun:

Q: Do you know anyone else with anosmia?
A: No, but I wish I did.

Q: Is there a cure for anosmia?
A: No. Most doctors haven't even heard of it. I don't think that some kind of cure would be too hard to find, but the problem is that the condition is so uncommon, not to mention unimportant, that little research has been done. Medical students, get crackin'!

Q: When did you discover that you couldn't smell?
A: By the age of 15, I had understood that something wasn't quite right, but when I was 18 did I fully realise that I couldn't smell anything. The realisation came in the same time as the discovery that there were other people out there with the same problem.

Q: Why did it take you so long to realise?
A: That's an interesting question that would take us into a long discussion about subconscious beliefs, social conformity and the philosophy of knowledge and perception. I might save that for another post. The short answer is that I thought it was something you gradually learned as you grew up. The surprise wasn't only that I couldn't smell, but that others could.

Q: Do you get annoyed when people talk about smells?
A: No! I can understand why you'd think I would, but no! If someone says, "It smells really nice here," I'm glad he's actually informing me that the present smell is nice. Otherwise, how would I ever know? If someone compliments me on my perfume or deodorant, I feel exhilerated because I then know that I smell good, and I'm somehow relieved. If someone forgets that I can't smell, I don't feel offended because I know they don't do it on purpose. Rather, I'm strangely amused and uplifted by the way they profusely apologise afterwards. It's like a comedy show, in a way.

Q: If you could fix your sense of smell, would you do it?
A: Er... I'm not sure I would, actually. If someone offered me an operation that could give me a sense of smell, chances are I would be too scared to take the operation, scared that afterwards I would be overwhelmed by a sensation I couldn't understand. If someone offered me a magical potion that could restore my olfactory abilities, I would buy it and then hide it somewhere in my closet, only to peek at it occasionally in a mixture of awe and fear.
If I ever did drink it, it would be out of curiosity rather than longing to smell.

You can't miss what you've never had.

- 16 comments by 1 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. Amrita

    Hi !

    Thanks for such an informative post.
    Readers should definitely read your post to get some knowledge about congenital anosmia.

    With Regards

    12 Sep 2009, 07:05

  2. souris

    Hey Alexander i found here really a very nice blog, the ANOSMIA Frequent ask question seems very interesting.. All questions and answers are very nice and really like this blog..

    14 Sep 2009, 07:48

  3. Thanks to both of you. Feel free to have a look around.

    16 Sep 2009, 21:54

  4. Anden15

    Thank you for this informative FAQ. Only the question of whether you can taste or not is left unresolved.

    16 Sep 2009, 22:14

  5. No, the only unresolved question here is whether you guys can actually smell. I’m starting to suspect that this whole smell-thing is just one massive conspiracy to make me feel bad about myself.

    18 Sep 2009, 10:44

  6. Vincent

    NO, I don’t think this is a massive conspiracy to make you feel bad about yourself…and you know that:-) By the way, I like your blog very much.

    28 Sep 2009, 11:13

  7. Krystakia

    These questions kind of remind me of what people would ask an actor if they were to ever come across one, though they’re not the same- the level of stupidity people have is the same. XD I love the analogy you’ve given here, it actually makes more sense than anything else I’ve read online. Though I’m curious about which foods are your favorites, and also if you could ever smell one specific thing- what would it be? applauds the use of magical potions

    24 Nov 2009, 05:29

  8. Hi, thanks for reading my post! As I mentioned, texture is very important to me, so that has a significant influence on my favourite foods. Still, I probably don’t deviate a lot from what other people would say. I really like lasagne, and also potatoes in cream. Foie gras on toast is also delicious.
    If I could smell one thing… I’ve thought about it before, and I think the answer would be “people”. It find it amazing that every person apparently has a unique odour. If “people” is too large a category, and I only could go for one single thing, I think I would want to be able to smell myself. Not only because I’m curious, but also for practical purposes. Although arguably, being able to smell one thing only would not improve your situation much, since you would have no other smells to compare it with, and therefore could not really determine how nice a smell it is. I think. Actually, maybe I would ask for the ability to smell gas, that could come in handy.

    I love the analogy you’ve given here, it actually makes more sense than anything else I’ve read online.

    You mean you had already heard about anosmia? Wow, that’s rare!

    26 Nov 2009, 10:33

  9. Krystakia

    I enjoyed reading it! And people are very different and unique in smell, good choice. Some differ from smelling (If you were to use taste as an example) like tea tastes whereas some smell like burnt onion tastes. If you’ve ever stuck your head above burning food and breathed the gas with your mouth- it would be similar to experiencing the smelling of gas. There are some receptors in your mouth similar to those in your nose- that’s why you can tell the difference between an apple and an orange. You can smell really strong smells with just your mouth.

    If you could smell, honestly, it would make you sick on and off for the first year. You can’t turn smell off, unlike with taste where you can just spit it out. If you stuck some chocolate on your tongue and let it melt there you would have a lingering taste, well smell lingers too. But if you really wanted to feel what it’s like to smell, take a bottle of hair-soap (or perfume/cologne) and take a deep breath with your mouth over it. You will find out, (although it won’t be a good smell…) what it feels like. All you have to do is imagine it in your nose instead of your mouth. I can give you some examples of what things smell like. I find it strange that I’m good at explaining it, but most people are horrified when you can’t smell things like rain and roses. But then they can’t explain it for themselves because people don’t have refined taste buds. Roses smell like honey tastes, and rain is similar to the refreshing feeling/taste you get when you brush your teeth with mint toothpaste- in your nose. As bizarre as that probably sounds. XD

    My mother has studied alternative medicine for 25-30 years now. So naturally I’ve picked a lot of it up and have knowledge outside the general “norm”, I did know that someone could have problems where they could not smell, for example- but it wasn’t something I actively thought about until recently. A friend of mine actually has Congenital Anosmia, and upon its discovery I started looking through some health pages online to see if there was anything that could cure it. Ahem… well the search itself was more important in the sense that I did not want to ask/tell him things that were- precisely on this page. Tis the reason I found this website. Though it both amazes me and isn’t a surprise to me that there’s been nearly no research on the subject, I at least have some idea of what it is and more specifically what causes it after looking for specific answers. Thankfully, I can spare him of those ever so special moments of knowing how stupid I myself can be. XD

    Does it upset you to have someone find out about your mysteriously disappeared sense, or is it hilarious? Does it run in your family?

    27 Nov 2009, 01:11

  10. Ok, let’s take this bit by bit.

    The trick with “inhaling smells” doesn’t work. It’s true that you have receptors in your mouth similar to those in your nose, but when I say that I can’t smell I’m not just saying that my nose doesn’t work. I seriously can’t smell anything, be it with my nose or my mouth. Believe me when I say it doesn’t work, I tested it on myself numerous times as soon as I read your comment. I’s love to know where you get your facts from. Also if you’re trying to find out more about anosmia, it really would be an idea to collaborate with you anosmic friend.
    The reason I can tell the difference between an apple and an orange, is because I have taste buds, which are very different from smell receptors.

    That being said, your descriptions of smells are among the best I’ve heard so far.

    The fact that you can’t just turn off your smell is indeed something that would put me off a bit, if I was ever offered to somehow get my smelling fixed. The sensation would be almost too overwhelming, I think. Fir a long time I didn’t understand people who were complaining about smells, because I thought you could just choose not to smell.

    It’s good to know that at least someone has thought about the ways of curing anosmia, but I really wouldn’t mind someone finding a standard “non-alternative” solution to the problem as well… Also I cannot see why on Earth you would want to hide potential cures from your anosmic friend! I hope I misunderstood you, because that seems unbelievably cruel to me!

    Does it upset you to have someone find out about your mysteriously disappeared sense, or is it hilarious?

    If I didn’t want people to find out about my “mysteriously disppeared sense”, I don’t think I would have written a blog post about it in the first place. I want as many people as possible to know about this. In a way, I guess it’s amusing to pay attention to people’s reaction when I tell them about my condition, but “hilarious” is a strong word.

    Does it run in my family? It is possible that my grandfather might have had something similar, but I will never know for sure.

    08 Dec 2009, 23:31

  11. Anden15

    Well, not to disappoint you or anything, but it IS absolutely possible to choose not to smell. Just like the way you choose not to taste (by not putting food in your mouth) you can just refrain from breathing through your nose. That way you can’t smell. That’s why people sometimes begin talking funny when there’s a bad smell in the room. They’re breathing a bit shallowly and closing off the air passage to their nose.

    And I think what that other guy meant was, that he didn’t want to ask his anosmic friend stupid questions like “can you still taste?”, which you clarified the answer of in this post. It’s not that he didn’t want to tell him if a cure existed :P.

    By the way I now know how the olfactory nerve works on the molecular level _. If you’re ever interested I’ll tell you about it. Same thing with the eye (at least the black and white mediated by retina rod cells). Especially the way the eye works is really weird. The perception of light is actually the LACK of a nerve impulse. When we see complete darkness our eyes are sending signals to the brain, and once a light is turned on, the nerve becomes quiet (in relation to light/dark information) and your brain sees the lack of nerve impulse as light. Kind of opposite of what you would normally expect, right? It made me wonder that if people become blind, do they actually see intense light instead of complete black like I always thought? Well, I found the answer to that too :P.

    11 Dec 2009, 22:12

  12. krystakia

    I remember reading about being able to smell through your mouth somewhere, it’s been awhile. But I tried it and it worked- I realized after posting the comment that it was probably still something involving the olfactory bulbs. Generally I get my information through alternative medicine books but I think I might’ve read that idea online. Anden15 is correct I meant that I didn’t want to ask him stupid things, not keep a cure from him.

    But I would like to point out that I’m a “she” not a “he”. :P

    And the general public is usually smart enough to breathe through their noses. Since it’s bad for you to breathe through your mouth anyway and you risk swallowing random flying things… yes technically you can stop it temporarily. But you can’t turn your nose off since your nose doesn’t shut. fair enough?

    If I could give him a magical smell potion or introduce him to a monkey mage who would bestow it upon him- then I would definitely tell him about them. Honestly a smell assistant, like a hearing aid, should be made available to the public IMHO. But as far as I can tell attempts to make them have either not worked due to lack of knowledge to invent, or no one has really tried to make one. It doesn’t seem like it would be too difficult to me, but then I’ve never tried to make one myself.

    Lastly, I like explaining what smells taste like. It’s interesting to me and my taste buds aren’t dead so it’s fairly easy for me to do. At any rate, I’m glad my examples were good ones. I’ve read some of your other posts too, and I liked what I read. Paint is a fun program, and I had actually thought your profile name was read “The missing variable” until I read your post about it. :)

    19 Dec 2009, 18:32

  13. @Anden15: When there’s a bad smell in a room, I’ve never noticed people starting to talk funny. I’ve only noticed that they start complaining. But yeah, I see what you mean. And yes, next time I see you I’ll have pen and paper with me, and you’ll explain to me how the nose works.

    @Krystakia: From the name, I figured you were probably a girl. I’d love to have some kind of smelling assistant, or a smelling dog maybe, just like blind people have dogs. I wonder if a bionic nose would look good on me.
    Also I’m very pleased to hear that you’ve been through that many of my blog posts!

    28 Dec 2009, 23:19

  14. krystakia

    Hmm…. well that depends. Would you stick with a standard human nose? Why not try for something more interesting like an anteater nose, or a beak? If I had a bionic nose I think I would build an entire library full of different kinds of noses. Some for parties, some for tricks and some just to be weird.

    ...the possibilities are endless…

    I enjoy reading blogs about completely random things. I write- but most of my blogs are lame. Yours are pretty cool and interesting though.

    29 Dec 2009, 06:55

  15. matt

    i have had anosmia since birth and sometimes like b4 school i have the biggest problem. i cant smell myself to see if i stink or not. so everyday i go to school unsure if i do or that i dont. its the worst feeling i ever have and still am having. i just wish there was a way to check myself weather i stink or not. bc i have had a problem with dogs peeing in my bed and i used to till i was 12 but for the past week i think i have but im not sure at all. and now i dont know if i am going to school smelling like pee or not. bc i cant take a shower everymorning. when i was a small child i used to go to school smelling like pee. i dont want that to happen again in high school. i just cant

    if i could fix it, no dout in my mind,..... i would in a heartbeat.

    22 Jan 2010, 08:35

  16. If you still live with your parents, ask them to inform you if you ever smell dodgy. Or ask them up front how you smell if you’re in a situation where you desperately need to know. Alternatively, get a friend to do this for you instead of your parents. That’s how I’ve coped so far. Artificial noses haven’t been invented yet, but other human being can act as extremely helpful smell detectors.

    01 Feb 2010, 23:09

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