Most human beings, even fragonerds like the glorious (and enlightened), denizens of Basenotes, exist in a state of “smell equilibrium”. People spend most of their days not realising that their brain and olfactory system are constantly processing smells from our environment, it's just that the brain only bothers to alert us to the fact that it’s working when there's a new, or novel, smell in the air for us to process. It's why we can't smell our own homes; the brain is simply so used to the familiar aroma of where we live that it simply filters it out, and does it so completely that you no longer notice at a conscious level that the smell exists. It's also why we think fragrances only last a few minutes on our skin, the brain simply absorbs the perfume as part of your “normal” smell, so stops noticing it.
I assure you, we smell 100% of the time we're awake, we just don't notice it until something new enters our immediate atmosphere. Don't believe me? Just walk into your living room after your significant other has let rip with a juicy fart, and you'll soon notice the difference!
But what if the connection between the olfactory nerve and the brain just doesn't exist, or has been damaged? It's estimated that approximately 300,000 people in the UK suffer from some kind of olfactory disorder. Smell disorders (known collectively as “dysosmias”) can be caused by brain injuries, viruses, polyps, and chronic inflammation of the sinuses. They can also be early warning signs of both Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. You can also simply lose your sense of smell through old age, and there's even a number of smell disturbance sufferers who have no known cause to their problem. Then there is also congenital anosmia, where people are born without the ability to smell at all.
Even when I joined the ranks of the dysosmic in 2014 after catching a cold, I was uninformed about smell, and had no real idea of the impact that the loss of it, or (in particular) the disturbance of of my “smell equilibrium” would have on my life. I remember being distressed that my “career” as a perfume writer (ha!) was now over, and I worried that I would never be able to create a new smell memory, but even then I wasn't really prepared for the realisation that anosmia was just the tip of the smell-loss iceberg, and that there was even rougher smell terrain ahead for me to mangle my analogies over. Most people aren't. So, here I am, in my editor's recent, and so eloquent, words: “writing about my fucking nose again”, in order to remind people that Anosmia Awareness Day exists, and to give a little primer on dysosmia to the fragrantly-inclined.
Anosmia, in its truest sense, is a complete inability to smell. Anything. Not just the usual “I'm 'anosmic to' musks/hedione/any other perfumery ingredient” that we see so often bandied about here on Basenotes, but it is a true, complete and total inability to smell anything you encounter. Anosmia is like living in a glass box, you can see and hear and interact with your life, but you're not really “there”. Food is reduced to texture and the very basic tastes of salt/sour/bitter/sweet and umami, making eating challenging, or deadly boring.
Hyposmia is where people have a lessened sense of smell. I'm currently hyposmic, having recovered around 60% of my pre-viral sense, but there's still an entire world of smell that's closed to me, but I'll get to those later.
Then there is the “worse things than anosmia” section:
Phantosmia: Terrifyingly real smell hallucinations, not caused by exposure to anything “smelly”. Burning is a common phantosmia, in my case a specific smell of burning char sui pork on a bbq, but the smells can often just be “noise”, an indescribable smell unrelated to anything that the sufferer has ever smelled before – they're often described as having an “unearthly” quality as a result. Like, say, “A burnt aluminium frying pan. In space”. The sensations can last for days, and often there is neither relief nor respite from them. I used to resort to sticking lavender oil-soaked Q-Tips into my nostrils, and hope for the best. The best never, ever came.
There is a “pleasant” sister condition to phantosmia, called Euosmia, where the hallucinated smell is deemed to be both recognisable, and “nice”. Now, as much as I love honey and greek yogurt, I don't want it to be the smell I smell all day, every day. I have done, upon occasion though. Whilst not quite as distressing as a “bad” smell hallucination, it is just as distracting.
And there's Parosmia, which is where every single smell and taste is distorted, and never for the better. Imagine a bacon sandwich where the bacon is made of mud instead of tasty cured pig. Or a roast potato which instead of being covered in gravy, has been dipped into a morass of mouldy onions. Or a bite of a chocolate bar tasting like a licking a hot turd instead of tasty, tasty chocolate. Now imagine that an act as simple as a work-colleague accidentally making you a cup of coffee instead of tea could make you vomit at your desk. Parosmia really can be that crippling – and disgusting. Its surreal, and stressful, and there's neither a cure nor even a real treatment, at least at present.
Then there is Hyperosmia, often afflicting pregnant women, which makes regular, recognisable, smells both exaggerated and magnified, and often causing nausea – a problem that also affects some cancer patients, as a side effect of their medication. This is usually a temporary condition, departing when either the pregnancy or course of medication is ended, but can occasionally stick around, causing distress for the sufferer.
Then there is the doozy: Cacosmia. Literally everything smells and tastes like shit. Hot shit. Cold shit. Mouldy shit. Dog shit. Horse shit. Human shit. Cat shit. Wild monkey shit. Wild monkey shit in space. You get the picture, it’s shitty. It's the worst thing ever, and I think back on my bout with it and wonder just how the hell I'm still here, frankly. There was a time where I didn't think my condition was liveable, never mind recoverable.
But I am still here, and I'm one of the lucky ones. These days I am much recovered, having regained the sense of smell in one nostril, and now I'm kind of the dancing bear of perfume writers. As in, the true marvel isn't so much that the bear dances well, but that the bear dances at all. Yes, I’m back writing about perfume, and, though I lack a little of the grace and poise of my fellow fragonerds, I'm here and I can at least follow the beat once again. A bit. Sometimes. My continuing inability to smell anything that emanates from the human body, or real burning though is a mixed blessing – whilst I'm now (almost) always happy to sit next to the smelly person on the tube, if a kitchen fire started when I was out of the room, I wouldn't notice until it was far too late.
It must be said that I didn't reach my current place of recovery and acceptance alone, nor easily, nor quickly, and it has been an exceptionally long, stressful, occasionally very dark and lonely three years since I caught the cold that turned my life upside down. But there are more places to find help if you've been affected by any of the conditions I mention these days than there ever were, and here are just a few:
Fifth Sense [http://www.fifthsense.org.uk] remains the only organisation committed to helping people suffering from taste and smell disorders.
Smell Training [http://www.smelltraining.co.uk] can help people – particularly post-viral anosmics like myself – regain control of a limited smell capacity, and even help improve it. It does rely on having some basic smell capacity, however, so is of limited use to congenital anosmics.
The Monell Center in Philadelphia [https://www.monell.org/] is one of very few medical research centres in the world devoted to researching the world of taste and smell.
Anosmia, and dysosmia, sufferers the world over will be wearing red today to raise awareness of these little known, and occasionally even less understood conditions, and will be using the hashtag #AnosmiaAware on Twitter to share stories and just generally rage at the world (it IS Twitter after all). You can follow me there on @Get_Lippie but I mainly just witter about Instagram on there these days. So don’t follow me, you’ll just get bored. Forget I even mentioned it.
Oh, and you can read my original piece about anosmia here btw