Taste and Smell Disorders

What are taste and smell disorders?

Taste and smell disorders are conditions that change your normal sense of smell or taste. The changes may be temporary or permanent. Your sense of smell is so closely connected to your sense of taste that a smell disorder usually changes your sense of taste as well.

More than 2 million Americans have some sort of permanent smell or taste disorder. Most often, these disorders are not caused by other, more serious problems. They can happen because you are getting older. However, the sudden loss of these senses can be a sign of a serious problem. Although such serious problems are rare, you should report any change in taste or smell to your healthcare provider.

What is the cause?

Your sense of taste and sense of smell are best between the ages of 30 and 60 years old. Around the age of 60, you start to lose your sense of smell. You also start to lose your sense of taste, especially in the ability to taste sour and bitter. Because older adults can still taste salty and sweet things, they will sometimes add more sugar or salt to food in order to make their food taste better.

Aside from normal aging, the most common causes of a loss of the sense of taste or smell are:

  • A stuffy nose caused by allergies or the common cold
  • Infections of the sinuses, tonsils, or throat
  • Smoking
  • Head injury
  • Polyps in your nose or sinuses
  • Nerve damage
  • Tumors
  • Surgery or radiation therapy involving your head or neck
  • A lot of exposure to chemicals, such as insecticides
  • Medicines

Other things that can cause a change in your sense of smell are:

  • Changes in your hormones
  • Mental health disorders
  • Seizure disorders

Dry mouth or gum disease can cause a change in your sense of taste.

What are the symptoms?

If you have a taste or smell disorder, symptoms may include:

  • Things tasting different than they used to or you may not be able to taste at all
  • Smells seeming stronger or weaker than normal or you may not be able to smell anything at all.

If your sense of smell or taste is lost or decreased, you may lose your interest in eating and your body may no longer get all of the nutrients it needs. This could cause other medical problems.

How are they diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and will examine you. Your ability to taste is tested by having you identify weak solutions of salt, sugar, and vinegar. Your provider will test different parts of your tongue.

Smell and taste affect each other, so your sense of smell should be checked if you are having taste problems. Your ability to smell is tested by seeing if you can identify easily recognized odors, like coffee. More specialized testing can be done with other odors. Your provider will try to determine if the problem is in one nostril or both.

It may help to keep track of:

  • When and what you smell
  • What you are able to taste
  • Where you are and what you are doing when you notice the problem
  • How long you have had the problem
  • Whether the problem comes and goes
  • What medicines you are taking

If there is concern about growths in the lining of your nose or sinuses, a CT scan may be done.

How are they treated?

Treatment depends on the cause.

  • If the disorder is caused by medicine, your provider may suggest that you change your dosage or change the medicine you take.
  • If a taste disorder is caused by dental problems, you will be referred to a dentist.
  • If the cause is related to allergies or sinus problems, a steroid nasal spray or salt-water nasal wash may help.
  • If tumors or growths are causing the problem, you may need surgery to remove them.

How can I take care of myself?

Follow the full course of treatment prescribed by your healthcare provider. In addition:

  • Use herbs and spices you like to add more flavor to food. Avoid using too much sugar or salt.
  • Prepare foods with a variety of colors and textures.

If you are not able to smell fires, poisonous fumes, leaking gas or food that has spoiled, you should:

  • Install smoke alarms in all bedrooms, in the kitchen, and near the fireplace if you have one.
  • Consider changing from natural gas appliances to electric.
  • Look at expiration dates on food and mark leftovers with dates so that you know when to throw them away
  • Carefully read warning labels on household products. Try not to breathe fumes from paint, insecticides, household cleaners, or other products that may be harmful.
  • Take care of your health. Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Eat a healthy diet and try to keep a healthy weight. If you smoke, try to quit. If you want to drink alcohol, ask your healthcare provider how much is safe for you to drink. Learn ways to manage stress. Exercise according to your healthcare provider’s instructions.

Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • If there are activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-07-23
Last reviewed: 2014-07-23
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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