Think for a moment about your favorite foods and beverages, or a meal so delicious, you can still recall the flavors years later. Do you associate certain aromas with comforting feelings or special events, such as Thanksgiving turkey, freshly baked cookies, a hike through a pine forest, or the scent of a newborn infant? Is smelling or tasting vital to your career?
Now imagine your life without the ability to smell or taste. For many people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries, such losses are their reality, and result in diminished enjoyment of life, employment limitations, health problems and safety hazards.
Traumatic Brain Injury Symptoms
Traumatic brain injuries, including concussions, commonly occur in motor vehicle collisions, construction accidents, physical altercations, and slip/trip and fall incidents. The brain controls our senses. Consequently, when the brain is injured, any or all of the senses may be impaired or completely lost. This can include:
- Sight (blurred or double vision, blindness)
- Hearing (ringing in the ears, diminished hearing, deafness)
- Touch (numbness, tingling)
- Taste (diminished or lost, “phantom” tastes)
- Smell (diminished or lost, “phantom” smells)
Other physical and mental symptoms common in traumatic brain injury accidents include:
- Loss of consciousness
- Nausea, vomiting
- Dizziness, vertigo, difficulties with balance
- Weakness, fatigue
- Depression, anxiety, memory loss, decreased concentration
Loss of Smell and Taste
The inability to smell or perceive odor is called “anosmia.” An inability to taste is called “ageusia.” Smell and taste are linked. While the loss of these senses may not be as dramatic or debilitating as damage to one’s vision or hearing, such injuries are very real and seriously impact functioning and quality of life.
The loss of the senses of taste and smell are often unreported. It is conservatively estimated by health experts that over two million people in the United States suffer from anosmia and/or ageusia. Others have decreased or limited ability to taste or smell, or experience “phantom” sensations, such as a strong metallic taste without eating or drinking anything, or a burning odor where no smoke or fire is present. These conditions may be temporary, intermittent, or permanent.
Causes of Anosmia/Ageusia
Anosmia can be caused by head colds, nasal congestion, damage to the nose lining, smoking, age, exposure to toxic chemicals, or injuries to the head, face or brain, called traumatic anosmia.
The frontotemporal areas of the brain are involved in the process of smelling. The olfactory nerve, also known as the first cranial nerve, is located in the nasal cavity, and transmits sensory information of odors to the brain. Injury to either of these areas, such as from an auto accident or falling and striking one’s head on a hard surface, can disrupt the ability to smell.
Anosmia may also be a symptom of other medical conditions, including Huntington’s Disease, Parkinson’s Disease, and Multiple Sclerosis.
Injury to the sense of smell frequently damages the ability to taste as well. Other causes of ageusia include dry mouth, smoking, tissue damage in the tongue, certain medications, or injury to the glossopharyngeal nerve or lingual nerve connected to the tongue.
Effects on Everyday Life
Those with taste and smell disorders are often unable to enjoy or appreciate food or beverages. Weight loss is a common result. Without the ability to smell, personal hygiene can be problematic, if a person cannot notice their own bodily odors. A parent or caretaker cannot tell when an infant, child or incontinent adult needs changing or cleaning.
Work may also be impacted. A person with anosmia and/or ageusia would have difficulty working in jobs such as chef, baker, food server, vintner, or firefighter.
There are also substantial safety concerns involved with the loss of taste and/or smell, if one cannot detect a gas leak from a kitchen stove or broken main, the smell of smoke from a home or car fire, mold from a damp wall or foundation, or toxic chemicals in cleaning agents. A person with limited or no sense of taste cannot tell if milk has gone sour or food has gone bad.
Taste and smell disorders are diagnosed and treated by physicians specializing in the nose, mouth and throat, such as otolaryngologists and rhinologists. Anosmia and related conditions of the olfactory sense can be diagnosed by procedures such as acetylcysteine or “sniffin’ sticks” tests, in which 12 common odors are smelled and identified. Similarly, taste tests may be used to detect the ability to identify saltiness, sweetness, sourness and bitterness.
Traumatic injuries to the face, head and brain are examined and diagnosed with testing such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and computer tomography (CT) scans.
Unfortunately, there is no medically recognized cure for traumatic anosmia or ageusia.
If the symptoms are not believed to be related to physical trauma, treatments for decreased or lost sense of smell and taste include nasal steroids, nasal spray, antibiotics, acupuncture, herbal remedies, surgery (such as septoplasty or sinuplasty) and cranio-septal therapy. Changes in diet and discontinuation of smoking may also provide relief.