Anosmia – Don’t take your noses for granted!

18th June, 2014

There’s a funny thing about noses: Everyone smells things differently. Every single olfactory experience is unique to the person smelling it. That’s astonishing when you think about it; 100 people smelling the same rose will experience that smell in their own, particular, way. How they experience that rose’s scent will depend on their memories, their experience of having smelled roses before, their own physical makeup, even their mood will have an effect. Some people even “see” smells (a condition called “synaesthesia”), and every person who “sees” a smell will see it filtered through their own unique experience too. It’s pretty wonderful, and completely mind-blowing when you ponder on smell for a while.

That is, of course, unless you can’t smell at all. Every person who loses their sense of smell experiences it in almost exactly the same way. It is (not to put too fine a point on it) miserable. And worse, to those not affected by anosmia, not being able to smell is pretty funny. Just think, rides on the tube not affected by smelly feet and BO, what a relief! Not being able to smell bins or sewage, or fox funk in the streets, what bliss!

But it’s not bliss. For every bad smell you miss out on, there are a hundred other wonderful smells you miss out on; bacon frying, your lover’s hair, fresh cut grass. I could have listed any one of a million things here, because I miss them all. Even the bad ones. Sometimes, even especially the bad ones. I had a bad cold a while ago, and whilst the cold symptoms have long gone, my nose is simply refusing to co-operate, and now, over a month later, I still can’t (reliably) smell a thing.

In ordinary life, this may not have mattered so much, I’d probably be quite happy doing my new, de-funkified commute and never knowing when the bins need putting out. But, for a few years now I’ve been educating myself about perfumes, and in the process, almost as a by-product, it seems I’ve accidentally been teaching myself to smell things differently. Better. Scent now occupies a place in my heart that I never expected, and it’s become a huge part of my life. I miss it. I miss it like an old friend, or a favourite pet, and I’m astonished at just how painful losing the sense of smell has been. I mourn it daily. I’m acting like a drama queen, perhaps, but it’s true.

Deconstructing fragrances, filtering them through my own perspective, and then writing about the impressions I get has been one of the most pleasurable experiences of life over the last few years, and it’s been an experience I’ve been lucky enough to share with many people too. I’ve made a lot of friends in the perfume-sphere, through our shared bond of an unhealthy interest in how things smell, and now I’m feeling an outcast, thrown adrift on the whim of an unreliable nose. Even though I mainly write funny pieces for Basenotes, pieces that look like they’ve been thrown together in a few minutes flat, those essays have been just as important a learning experience – to learn what is good, one really does have to try the bad too, just so you can really tell the difference – for my nose as my more "serious" pieces elsewhere. Even though I’ve not been involved in fragrance for long, I thought I was showing an aptitude for it, in a way that had been totally unexpected to me, and it was a wonder to find such joy in something so simple. Smelling things. With my nose.

My nose which now doesn’t work. My nose, which is causing much hilarity to my loved ones, just doesn’t do anything. Noses are intrinsically funny though, aren’t they? My nose is big and bumpy and bony, and one would think that something that takes up so much of the valuable real-estate of my face would have a function, but for now, it’s just there, hanging around, not doing very much. It’s like an uninvited guest at a particularly boring party. There’s nothing funny about going temporarily blind, or deaf, but because noses aren’t “important” organs in the same way, when we lose the specific ability to use the sense of smell, it’s funny in a way that blindness or deafness isn’t. There’s something hugely amusing about a fragrance writer losing their “nose” – I still have a sense of the ridiculous, and yes it is funny. Spend a couple of years learning to smell, only to lose the entire ability overnight. Yes, that’s amusing in a schadenfreude kind of a way, alright.

Smell however, is not just about being able to tell if the milk is off, it is tied to memory (or at least my memory), in an almost primal way. Imagine never being able to form a new scented memory again. Imagine never having the luxury of cuddling up to a t-shirt, imprinted with the smell of a loved one who is far away, for comfort. Go find a bottle of your mother’s favourite fragrance, take a deep sniff and revel in the memories that unfurl in your mind. Then imagine never being able to do that again. Not so funny now, is it? I once nearly burst into tears whilst smelling Clair de Musc by Serge Lutens for the first time in Selfridges. So strongly did images of long-gone female relatives spring to mind, that I needed a few moments to compose myself. It was an unexpected vision, and so shockingly awesome in its Technicolor imagery that I had to sit down for a minute or two, apologising to the sales assistant all the while, cursing myself and my momentary madness. However, it was such a beautiful, searing moment, and I eventually treasured it so much, that I wore a tiny dab of Clair de Musc alongside my “official” fragrance on my wedding day, so I could symbolically take those much-beloved, and long-missed women down the aisle with me.

Now imagine that every single thing you eat has the taste and texture of “moderately flavoured socks”. That’s the other problem with anosmia, it’s a “buy one, get one free” situation. You lose taste too. Pinch your nose, put a small amount of your favourite food in your mouth, whatever that happens to be. Really attempt to taste that food. Faint, isn’t it? The ghost of a favourite flavour. Now, release your nostrils. Doesn’t that taste like someone has turned the volume up on that food all the way to 11? Everything I taste these days tastes like it does when you pinch your nostrils, and it’s the worst diet ever invented. When flavour is relegated to an extremely distant second to texture, food simply isn’t a pleasure any more.

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I have hopes that smell will be back. I’ve been smothering myself in some much-loved scents recently, and I think I can smell them. But, in reality, I don’t really know if I’m actually smelling what I think I’m smelling, or simply remembering what something used to smell like. It’s an olfactory and psychological puzzle, and it’s exhausting. Occasionally, I’ll catch a fleeting whiff of something, a handwash, maybe, or the passing fragrance of a cup of hot soup on a colleagues desk, or, as it was for one bright and shining moment, the smell of Miller Harris Tangerine Vert, but it’s never for more than a second, however much I do my best impression of a sniffer dog in a hippy compound on the hunt for contraband.

Don’t take your noses for granted. Sniff, smell, and rejoice in your own unique scented world. Smell the bad things, and then revel in the truly great smells, and the memories they evoke. Once smell is gone, the world is a much greyer, less pleasurable place, in a million tiny, unexpected ways.


Bacon Image: LisaFX/IstockPhoto

Scary doll image: Grant Osborne




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About the author: Get Lippie

Louise is a management accountant by day, beauty editor by night, and has been writing since 2009 in a (failed) attempt to rid herself of her lipstick addiction. She also writes regularly for SLiNK magazine


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    • david | 21st June 2014 00:21

      Very creepy image...that doll...

    • teardrop | 21st June 2014 00:36

      What a terrible experience that must be! l feel for you, & sincerely hope you will fully recover your sense of smell soon. Losing any of our senses is awfully sad & debilitating, & l certainly do feel blessed every day that l am still in full possession of all of mine.

    • donatella | 21st June 2014 02:05

      Sorry to hear your sense of smell go but I can't help wonder how can someone make such pronouncements about something they clearly don't know anything about. You say that everyone smelling a rose will smell it differently, well you are wrong. The physiological functioning of smell is the same for everybody. Otherwise how would you spot a gas leak? a food plate gone bad? If we talk about the psychological aspect of it then that is different but you are talking about the physical ability to smell as if every person had their own rubix cube in their nose, that is so monumentally ridiculous and of astonishing ignorance.

      And you should go to a doctor, people on this forum just looooooooove to say they are anosmic to perfume ingredients, which is so ignorant because anosmia is a very serious medical condition caused by serious ailments that range from seizures to even brain tumors, so if your sense of smell stops working there is a possibility there is something really wrong with you, which you would know if you knew something about the science of smell.

      Go to a doctor.

    • Get Lippie (article author) | 21st June 2014 11:24

      How astonishingly rude! You'll be pleased to hear that I'm not actually an idiot, however, and I have - of course - been seeing a doctor for the last several weeks about my problem. I didn't think my doctors experiences were relevant to this piece as it's not about anosmia generally, and is just a description my experience of it so far. It's not a scientific essay, nor Is it meant to be read as such. If you re-read the paragraph you object so rudely to, it's quite clear that I'm talking about psychological experiences of scent, rather than explaining the physiological olfactory process.

      I'm not "loving saying I'm anosmic to perfume ingredients" either, I actually, genuinely, totally can't smell *anything*, and that includes perfume. I haven't written this to be trendy, or funny (or even scientific), it's just a portrait of some of the psychological pain I've endured since I lost my total sense of smell. It's based about perfume, because this is a perfume website, and I am, for better or worse, a perfume writer.

      I hope you don't fall off your high horse and hit your head. Brain damage can kill the neural pathways that process smell you know. And that really IS science !

    • Get Lippie (article author) | 21st June 2014 11:27

      Thanks, teardrop! It has been a horrible process, but my doctors are both sympathetic and understanding, and we have high hopes of a recovery. I still get flashes of scent, so that's a good sign. No olfactory hallucinations either, with suggests it's not neural, which is a relief!

    • teardrop | 21st June 2014 11:28

      Well said, Get Lippie!

      l can't believe how unsympathetic some people can be.

    • Get Lippie (article author) | 21st June 2014 11:28

      That doll belongs, apparently, to the editor of this website. He's a strange, strange man. ;)

    • Grant | 21st June 2014 12:06

      I'm just going to clarify – It doesn't actually belong to me - it's my daughters. And its name is "scary baby"

    • Get Lippie (article author) | 21st June 2014 12:34

      Pfeh, details. Does it normally have the bulldog clip?

    • lpp | 21st June 2014 13:01

      So sorry, Get Lippie - we have a very persistent troll here.

      I do hope that you make a full recovery soon.

    • LBDDiaries | 21st June 2014 20:05

      To donatella: Wow you are an incredibly rude and supercilious sounding person who totally missed the point of this post. You yourself make "such pronouncements about something they clearly don't know anything about" - how to handle yourself in a public forum, to get the main point of someone's very well written article, and to keep your negative opinions to yourself.

      Rather than showing your wisdom, you proved an old saying by Abraham Lincoln to be true; "'Tis better to be silent and be thought a fool, than to speak and remove all doubt."

    • Get Lippie (article author) | 24th June 2014 06:33

      No, I'm in the UK, this product doesn't exist over here.

    • teardrop | 24th June 2014 06:43

      There is a similar product in the UK called First Defence, which also contains zinc. l binned mine the moment l read about its effects on the sense of smell.

    • Get Lippie (article author) | 24th June 2014 07:19

      Yeah, didn't use that, either. ;) my cold "remedy" is bed rest and paracetamol. I did use Otrivine on one or two occasions but that doesn't contain zinc so far as I know.

    • David Ruskin | 25th June 2014 18:30

      I'm so glad that you visited your doctor, and that he is taking it seriously. And I do hope that your sense of smell returns as soon as is possible.

      As an aside I would not ever use Otrivine having become almost addicted to it, many years ago. I started using it when I got very bad catarrh after a cold. It seemed to work well, and cleared my nose at once. Then the effect wore off so I used it again;and again, and again. In the end I depended on the wretched stuff to give me a clear nose; if I stopped using it I clogged up at once. I finally went to my GP, who warned me never to use it again, and broke the vicious cycle with some steroid spray. I'm amazed you can still buy it over the counter.

    • sfmedusa | 25th June 2014 18:52

      Losing my sense of smell would be a genuine tragedy in my life, so I have no idea how you're coping Get Lippie. I'm acutely aware that the tea I drink is not actually a flavour, it's a smell and without the sense of smell I may as well just have a glass of water instead.

      A friend who has permanently lost his sense of smell due to a brain injury eats the most bizarre things in combination with each other, just to experience something, anything, while eating. Jalapeños and raw carrots at the same time to feel the heat and the texture at the same time or whatever. He's lost a huge amount of weight due to losing interest in food totally.

      I hope that this is something that is temporary and from which you recover completely. I would genuinely struggle to cope with losing my sense of smell (and this statement is coming from someone who started off able bodied but can no longer use legs or dominant arm!).

    • Get Lippie (article author) | 25th June 2014 19:42

      Yes, that's why I use it once or twice a year, tops! It's a desperate emergency-only type thing for me, all these things can be habit forming, which is a pain. I have discovered nasal lavage as a result of my anosmia, and that tends to clear blockages quite well! Feels a bit weird - to say the least! - though.

    • blackheart2925 | 28th June 2014 04:29

      Scary...I use otrivin a lot and after reading here now trying to cut down usage!

      How are the saline nasal sprays ? Would something like using a neti pot work if anybody has used it ?

      blocked noses can be a really irritating ...:-(

      Maybe I should just go to a doctor and get this addressed

      Sent from my GT-P1000 using Tapatalk 2

    • edshepp | 30th June 2014 13:34

      I've developed an on/off nose spray habit in the past few years. In Sweden, you can't buy a decongestant in pill form, which I find ludicrous, but you can buy the sprays. I've known lots of people who became dependent on them. For me, at least, coming off them isn't as horrible as it seems--just a few days of congestion. I don't think they're associated with anosmia.

      I had a very brief bout of anosmia recently at the end of a sinus infection. I think part of the reason for it was that I decided to quit the nose sprays while I was still sick. I think that I probably should have been using them to help my sinuses drain. When the infection finally cleared up and the sinuses were no longer blocked, I could smell again, so mine was only temporary.

      Commenter donatella seems to need some education in perfumery. It's perfectly possible to have a functioning sense of smell and still be anosmic to specific chemicals, like Galaxolide, for instance.

    • blackheart2925 | 30th June 2014 14:16

      Have stumbled upon something called neti pots for nasal cleaning ...seems interesting going to order a neti pot soon and see

      Sent from my GT-P1000 using Tapatalk 2

    • pareidolia | 3rd July 2014 05:34

      That sounds awful! I am so sorry. I hope you recover soon.

    • Get Lippie (article author) | 15th July 2014 09:25

      I wouldn't describe MY losing my sense of smell as a tragedy, but it has been a huge problem, and it is still something I miss on a daily basis. Oddly, I've found water to be a bit of a revelation since the anosmia, because it's not meant to taste of anything, it's about the only thing I drink that isn't disappointing, if that makes sense?

      Smell and taste are where most of our purest sensory pleasures come from, it's hard to do without them, but I still have hopes that I'll recover - thank you for your lovely post, it means a lot, genuinely.

    • Get Lippie (article author) | 15th July 2014 09:27

      I use a sinus rinse (I use NeilMed) at least once a day. It's great for clearing the sinuses in a natural way, but I'm not sure it's made that much difference to how I smell, sadly! Still, it has to be better than decongestants. Make sure you use enough salt! The burning ... oh, you do need the salt!

    • Get Lippie (article author) | 15th July 2014 09:28

      Thank you, me too! On my second round of antibiotics now, and things are better, but I'm not "recovered", not yet, at least!

    • Get Lippie (article author) | 15th July 2014 09:32

      I've actually seen that Otrivine can actually be used as part of an anosmia relief programme, so, I think maybe you have a point. I'll be avoiding them for a while though, just in case! I'll stick to the nasal rinsing for a while.

      Even when I'm at full capacity, it turns out I'm totally anosmic to hedione, so yes, some anosmia to specific odorants is perfectly possible without being "trendy". I found this out smelling it in isolation with a perfumer friend of mine though, not an opportunity most people have to find out what they can't smell, alas!

    • sfmedusa | 15th July 2014 20:51

      I think that I rely on smell, taste and sight since my hearing problems have become more prevalent and I can't move properly and lack sensation for so much of my body these days.

      I can't wear jewellery any more because of allergies and lymphoedema, I can't dress nicely because of my disabilities but I can smell great and take pride in that. Taking that away from me would be a really big issue.

    • Get Lippie (article author) | 15th July 2014 21:14

      I genuinely hope it never happens to you, I can see just how much it would take away from you. May you always have a very happy nose xx