Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date.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. 2023;108(3):online

Related article: Smell and Taste Disorders in Primary Care

Why are smell and taste important?

Smell and taste are important senses. Smell is linked to memory, lets us enjoy certain scents, and adds to our sense of taste. Smell can also alert us to dangers. Taste allows us to enjoy food and drinks. Together, smell and taste help our desire to eat and maintain nutrition. If you can't smell or taste, you may overeat, undereat, or not recognize dangers such as spoiled food, gas leaks, or smoke as a warning of fire.

What causes problems with my ability to smell or taste?

Many illnesses such as common colds, COVID-19, allergies, and sinus problems can affect the sense of smell and, therefore, affect taste. Medicines that treat infections, blood pressure, cholesterol, and cancer can affect smell and taste. Head and nasal injuries, smoking, not eating enough of certain nutrients, Parkinson disease, or Alzheimer dementia can also affect smell and taste. Although these senses can fade as you get older, looking for causes other than age is important.

How can my doctor help?

Your doctor can evaluate your ability to smell and taste. They can look for the cause by asking questions, reviewing your medicines, and examining your head, nose, mouth, and nerves. Often (but not always), your doctor can identify a cause and treat it, with a full return of your smell and taste. Your doctor might refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist for more testing and treatment.

Whether your smell or taste improves or returns to normal depends on what caused the problem, how severe the loss is, your age, and other factors. After COVID-19, smell and taste typically return to normal in a few weeks, even without treatment. When smell or taste loss is from sinus disease, these senses may return once the sinus disease is treated. After you quit smoking, it may take 15 years to recover fully. When the loss of smell or taste is due to trauma or neurologic disease, it is less likely to improve. Smell retraining (also known as olfactory training) may help. Ask your doctor about smell retraining.

What other support systems are available?

The loss of smell and taste can be frustrating. The Smell and Taste Association of North America website has links to tools, information, and a podcast for patients. The National Institute of Aging website also provides helpful tips to maintain nutrition if you have a smell or taste disorder.

Where can I learn more?

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