A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Sense of smell, it’s related to your survival

Senior woman smelling pink flowers - Sense of smell

Sense of smell is a natural instinct. Losing your sense of smell can be related to a variety of causes.

Safe or unsafe, ripe or not quite ready, among many other decisions: Sense of smell is crucial in helping us navigate and make conclusions about our surroundings.

“For millions of years, animals have used sense of smell to survive. Even today, sense of smell helps us live by warning us of dangers as extreme as natural gas to less extreme like spoiled food,” said Dr. Timothy Boyle, a Marshfield Clinic Health System otolaryngologist.

Works best when you’re young and healthy

As with other beings who age, our sense of smell declines over our lifetime. Significant loss typically increases after the age of 60.

“Sense of smell works well when we’re young and healthy and not so well as we age or decline in health, similar to other functions in our body,” Boyle said. “The most common disorder related to smell is losing it.”

Loss of smell causes

Losing your sense of smell can be related to a variety of causes. Your current medications, a blockage or viral infection are just a few connected causes.

“Even a common cold can cause loss of smell,” Boyle said.

Additionally, there are some studies suggesting smell disorders may be connected to and early signs of neurological diseases and conditions like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

In one study, 90 participants were asked to smell a spoonful of peanut butter. Those who had early stage Alzheimer’s could not smell the peanut butter while others without cognitive or neurological problems had no trouble.

Hunger, repulsion and pain

It’s not uncommon for you to classify different smells as either pleasurable or repulsive.

Sense of smell is meant to help us find and eat food that is safe and flavorful. Associating hunger with a pleasurable smell is an example of this.”

Headaches or migraines related to smell are usually just irritation, almost like an allergic effect, Boyle explained.

“Sometimes the microscopic particles your smell picks up stimulates pain receptors in our brain. The nerves associated with smell and pain are very geographically close to each other in your brain,” Boyle said.

No sense of smell, see your provider

“Your primary care provider or an otolaryngologist can give a nasal exam and evaluate your medications. We’re happy to help,” Boyle said.

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