Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2000;61(2):438

See related article on smell and taste disorders.

Why are smell and taste important?

The senses of smell and taste let you fully enjoy the flavors of foods and drinks, and the smells of flowers. These senses also protect you from food poisoning and warn you of dangers like fire, polluted air and poisonous chemicals.

What happens when I have trouble with my sense of smell or taste?

If you can't smell or taste, you might eat too much and gain weight, or you might eat too little and lose weight. You might use too much sugar and salt to try to make your food taste better. This can be a problem if you have diabetes or high blood pressure.

Is there a difference between taste and flavor?

Yes. The basic tastes are salty, sweet, bitter and sour. “Flavor” involves taste and smell. For example, because a person is able to smell a chocolate bar while eating it, the chocolate not only tastes sweet but also has the flavor of “chocolate.” Chocolate candy might not taste as good if you have a cold and a stuffy nose.

What causes problems with my ability to smell or taste?

Nose or sinus problems might make you lose your sense of smell, for a little while or even a long time. Your sinuses might be swollen or polyps (tiny growths) might block your nose passages.

Infections (like colds or flu) or a head injury might also make you lose your ability to smell. Parkinson's disease or Alzheimer's disease can make people lose their sense of smell.

Infection or inflammation in your mouth can cause loss of taste. (Inflammation means redness and swelling.) Head injury and Bell's palsy can also affect the ability to taste. (Bell's palsy is an inflammation of the nerves of the face.)

Some medicines (like antibiotics and blood pressure pills) can affect smell and taste. Cigarette smoking, chemicals and a lack of vitamins or minerals (like vitamin B12 and zinc) can also cause problems with taste and smell.

What can I do about this problem?

If a medicine causes the problem, you might ask your doctor if you can stop taking the medicine or take a different medicine. Then you might be able to taste and smell again.

If you have an infection or an allergy, treatment might help.

A few people lose the ability to smell or taste forever. But, it's still possible to improve the appeal of food. Your doctor can give you tips for fixing food in ways that increase your enjoyment.

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