How to Cope & Enjoy Life Without A Sense of Smell
For me, having anosmia (no sense of smell) is mainly a party trick; it’s usually received as a novelty, so I avoid telling people unless forced. But when it comes up — usually when I’m asked to comment on the smell of wine, food, or a new place… which I swear used to happen, pre-lockdown — it’s 50/50 whether I’ll pretend to smell whatever they smell OR if I’ll sign up for the five minute discussion in which I have to explain that I can’t smell. If I opt for the latter — and even if I just met them — they’ll look at me like they can’t believe I just dropped this bomb on them… “OMG there’s so much to know…” But after I answer their three questions, they’re pretty much satiated: 1) Never had it, 2) Yes, I can taste , 3) Maybe it’s different than your sense of taste. Reaction: “…Oh.” Anosmia explanation over. Next topic.
Until now. Because in the wake of Covid-19, hundreds of thousands if not millions of people are experiencing smell disorders and loss worldwide. And suddenly, it’s a conversation worth having.
According to Brooke Jarvis’s excellently researched article for The New York Times, prior to Covid just ~3% of American had little or no sense of smell… but a recent South Korea report found that “of 2,000 people with mild cases of Covid-19, 30% lost their sense of smell.” According to AbScent.org, an online community for people will smell disorders, most people with Covid-19 who suffer from anosmia will recover smell and taste after two weeks, but about one in ten may have persistent loss that lasts weeks, months — or maybe forever. Jarvis’s article goes on to explore the shockwave being felt by unprepared ENTs worldwide, many of whom acknowledge that smell — being a “lesser sense” — has gone largely understudied due to lack of funding and, well, giving a shit. So it should be no surprise that there is little innovation in the way of correcting the sense… and very few tools for how to cope.
And coping is key. Because it turns out that life without smell can be devastating. Many associations and experiences coloured by smell are suddenly “lesser” without it. This includes direct sensory experiences like taste, but also less tangible ones like sense of place, memory, emotional connections and even identity.
Those of you who’ve recently lost smell want answers, and we non-smellers may finally have more than three to give.
My loss of smell was not abrupt (I’ve never had it) but I’m particularly sensitive to your plight because last year I developed tinnitus, a sensory disorder which requires lifestyle changes to cope but also an adjustment in perspective to be able to better focus on and enjoy moments — particularly quiet ones, like falling asleep. Additionally, I was raised with a deaf parent, so on a few levels I am acutely aware of what it means to live with a sensory deficiency… and even more importantly, how to thrive.
As I scan the comments on smell disorder forums, depression is palpable. You feel distant from your partners or have lost enjoyment of food. You name favourite songs and activities just to remind one another about the good things in life. I hope your smell returns, and my heart goes out to you for the loss you’ve suffered. But while scrolling through your sadness, I also realised something remarkable… I don’t see anosmia as a disability in myself at all. It’s just a different way to experience life, and a pretty enjoyable one!
That’s not me being good-natured. I’m telling you: life sans smell is good.
Perhaps because I navigate it a bit differently than smelling people do. So, while I’m not an ENT, what I can offer you is some insight into how I approach several key experiences you may struggle to enjoy without smell to guide you. Within each section, I’ll also address both coping and enjoying life without smell because the two are a bit different:
- Coping responds to: I miss the old ways of experiencing familiar things via smell. I’ll discuss how I unlock awareness of other senses and use them to frame both experiences and emotional associations — as well how to feel comfortable and safe without smell.
- Enjoying responds to: I didn’t know what I was missing with smell, and now I don’t enjoy life like I used to. I’ll explore how a loss of the sense may warrant seeking new experiences for enjoyment, particularly ones that don’t depend primarily on smell.
Note: I’ve organised this article like an interview, by addressing common comments on smell disorder forums, so you can skip around as needed. I have anonymised and rephrased quotes for the privacy for those posting.
I don’t enjoy food like I used to.
“The biggest thing is taste. Nothing tastes like it used to. I can detect basic flavours like sweet or salty, but not nuanced flavours. For example, chocolate cake is ‘sweet’… but I don’t taste the ‘chocolate’.”
“Foods that I used to enjoy suddenly taste unpleasant, but I find it hard to define what I mean by ‘unpleasant.’ I just can’t stand the taste anymore.”
Food is the topic most commonly discussed, because it’s the most noticeable. But there’s much confusion that accompanies it. Smell is a key contributor to sense of taste, which occurs through “oral referral” — but it is not the only way we taste. Physical taste buds in our mouths are able to sense five basic aspects of flavour: sweet, salty, bitter, sour and umami.
Though I cannot smell, I do have taste buds — so yes, I can taste. But the foods that I enjoy are defined by the above five aspects of flavour, particularly how well balanced and how interestingly they incorporate them. For example, I’m always on the hunt for stimulating flavour combinations — like sweet plus salty (honey roasted peanuts), or umami plus sour (salmon with lemon). But how well these combinations go over has everything to do with balance. Last week I poured too much salt on my brussel sprouts (which should have been a nice salt plus bitter experience) but I had to wipe each one off and add lemon to get them down. Some of the most interesting cuisines for me are Thai and Indian foods, which complexly include as many as four or five basic senses in just one dish! A coconut curry, for example, balances all five; sweet coconut and paprika, bitter turmeric, citrusy coriander, earthy cumin, salt and umami broth or stock base.
For foods that taste plain, sauces are a particular saviour; especially those developed by professionals in labs. Spices are more hit/miss because there is a margin of error, so I start with small amounts… and I usually only cook with them when I’m feeling adventurous. Like Fridays.
Finally, texture often makes or breaks my food experience. I’ve always been a half-banana eater — I like the flavour, but too much of the spongey, squishy consistency quickly becomes revolting. And kombucha is compelling because of its complex sweetness, sourness and acidity… until I get a strand of that raw, sinewy DNA floating at the bottom. Then I’m off it for a week. Texture plays second fiddle to flavour until flavour is less discernible; then, it becomes critical. And for me, it’s one of the great joys of eating! A crispy piece of bacon is heaven, and not because of its meat flavour. That “good bake” texture Paul Hollywood is always going on about? I don’t enjoy cake without it.
But what’s perhaps most important is the process of tasting food.
When I was a teenager, I had a revelation about this. My friends blindfolded and fed me different things (ah, high school), then made me guess what they were. And though I did not guess a single food correctly, while blindfolded I had the most passionate love affair with something that was the perfect balance of sweet, sour and rich texture… so I was shocked to learn it was a sugared raisin from a box of Raisin Bran. Ever since, I try to eat food with real attention — less scarfing a burger, more like how people go wine tasting. Without smell, it can take real work to locate flavour. By chewing food longer, letting it dissolve, and even closing my eyes, I find that flavours immediately get louder. This sounds counterintuitive… if I’m already down a sense, don’t I want my eyes to “help”? No. Blocking out other sense means blocking out distractions, which allows me to focus on whatever my taste buds are detecting. I find this especially helpful with bland foods, which are really just subtle flavours waiting to be found. A raisin is still a raisin, but if you hone in on taste buds — or have friends with a blindfold — the experience could be totally different.
When it comes to taste, I may be missing out on the joys of “oral referral,” but I’m still having a full sensory experience — it just consists of the other, more discernible elements of taste. And when it comes to enjoying food in general, I find the best thing is to seek newness and variety. This may be helpful for those of you who are suddenly repelled by your usual preferred foods — if they seem unfamiliar and unpleasant, it’s possibly because in the absence of “oral referral” they fail the five taste buds, balance or texture… or all the above. Though I can’t be sure, I imagine this may be the case with something like steak: for me, it’s a hunk of texture and little else (I imagine its subtleties are detected mainly through scent). It’s possible that in trying new foods, you will discover new favourites which appeal based on the above three aspects, as they do for me — and it may be a good time to re-try things you used to dislike, or have never tried before.
The charity Fifth Sense has a page of recipes which are compiled with smell and taste impaired people in mind. I haven’t tried them, but sounds it promising.
I can’t detect signs of danger, like smoke or gas.
“I failed to light the stove. I could have blown the house up.”
“I am constantly checking the expiry date on food, I can’t afford to be poisoned.”
Ah yes, fear of death. When I was a teenager, I got home late after my first concert experience… and started vomiting, which woke my mother up and resulted in her screaming at me for getting drunk. I was not drunk, just food poisoned by some freezer-burned meat that I wasn’t able to detect. (Though it took me weeks to convince her of this.)
I also have more than a few stories about forgetting something on the stove — and was saved by a fire detector each time.
There’s no real solution for these healthy fears other than attentiveness and forming habits to minimise risk. I am acutely aware of what’s in the fridge, and I don’t take chances on perishables that teeter on the expiry date. I also try to purchase quality foods, the opposite being something like supermarket sushi (if that offends anyone, just know that I caved and did it last year… and paid the price). Regarding fire or smoke risk, I replace batteries in my detectors and am attentive about the stove being off before leaving the house.
If you live with someone, it’s also helpful and comforting to communicate these fears so they can share responsibility for systemic safety measures. Sort of like a seeing eye dog, but with a person. My partner is the leading nose in our household, so he assumes responsibility for detecting the sources of peculiar smells. That, in itself, frees me from a great deal of worry. (In exchange, I keep pathways clear so we don’t trip.)
And that’s about all we can do. The good news? At 35, I’m not dead yet. Which bodes pretty well for the rest of you.
I sometimes think I can smell, but it’s a sensation more like feel or taste.
“When I enter places or if the weather changes, sometimes I think I smell them but really maybe I’m just feeling them? I’m so confused.”
“I often think I catch a glimpse of a smell, but it goes away. What is that?”
Sometimes my partner thinks he can get away with farting in the car with the windows rolled up… but I can tell. How is this possible? (He wonders, as I yell at him.) I detect the atmospheric changes. Odours carry a kind of density, much like changes in humidity and temperature, which I can feel through my nose and even sometimes on my tongue despite not being able to smell the odour itself.
So if you’re experiencing something that feels like smelling, but isn’t, you’re not crazy. And in fact, it’s a kind of superpower.
There’s little research to help me articulate this, but a 1993 abstract from the National Center for Biotechnology Information titled “Heat as a Factor in the Perception of Taste, Smell, and Oral Sensation” breaks it down like this: “The term flavor should be used to describe the totality of oral sensations — taste, smell, touch, temperature, and chemical irritation (pain).” This is thanks to the trigeminal system, which connects our mouth to our brains and enables us to detect sensations even beyond just food flavours. The article doesn’t specifically pin down the phenomenon of using taste and oral sensation to read atmospheric conditions (beyond heat), but he was onto something here.
In my experience, heightened sensitivity to other sensory modes is a core benefit of losing a primary sense; it not only aids immensely in detecting environments, it helps me form emotional associations with them.
And, farts aside, atmospheric sensitivity it’s quite a pleasant super-sense to have! Sometimes I can feel rain before it happens: a sudden crispness in the air that feels sharp in my nasal passage and lands as a refreshing cold on my tongue. Sunny days have a particular density — I can’t smell a tan, but I know I’m getting one because of the air around my skin; it comes through as oily warmth on my tongue, and humidity in my nose. Restaurants have even more complex associations; I may not smell what’s cooking, but stepping inside unlocks a mixture of heat, steam, and heavy air— it’s a combination that I’ve come to associate with good times. Though perhaps not as “clear” as distinct odours, the taste and feel of atmosphere that comes with “feel-smelling” as one person calls it (which makes me think that ‘running’ used to be called ‘fall-walking’) is essential to how I enjoy moments, places and even form memories. More on this below…
I miss how I experienced moments and memories.
“There is so much more I miss than food. Smelling my loved ones, winter campfires, fresh laundry and a clean house.”
“Sometimes I’m okay and other times I’m deeply sad. I miss the smell of the ocean and my kids, I’m trying to be grateful for the memories of smell.”
Without the daily comforts of familiar smells, people mention feelings of invisibility. They say the world seems flat, colourless, or dull — even remarking on the sensation that they don’t really exist. They express emptiness and a deep sadness that comes and goes, often piqued when their expectation of smell should be tied to an emotion. Like when they expect to smell a loved one or a favourite food or place but find nothing.
This is incredibly sad. I, of course, have no smell-based associations, but I do know what it is to depend on other senses for emotion and sense of self. If I couldn’t see the colours of my paints, or feel the warmth of my dog on my lap, the world would indeed be a bleaker place.
But I think that by drawing this comparison, there’s something else to be recognised; that we depend on a variety sensations coming together to gain a sense of a moment, a place or a memory. Even identity. And as recent non-smellers revisit these things, they may need to call upon other senses in order to reframe them. You miss the old way of enjoying a campfire on a cold night because your associations are heavily smell-based: marshmallows, wood, wet grass. For me, “campfire on a cold night” is all about temperature, light and sound: the warmth on skin cut with cold air, the hypnotic colour of flames, the crackle sound. I’m sure you‘re also aware of these things, but for me they form the full experience. So it’s possible that by opening awareness to other sensations, “campfire on a cold night” can take on new associations even provide a different way of enjoying a familiar experience.
Memory is a bit different; for this, I think turning to other methods of recall (revisiting songs or places) or shutting down other sensations (as with meditation) may be the key to being able to recall a full sensory picture.
Memory for me is triggered by places, conversations and visual reminders like objects or images. So when I hear people talk about randomly getting whiffs that trigger memories, it frankly sounds terrifying — because I can’t imagine walking past a man who smells like my ex-boyfriend, or being forced into the scent of middle school. But where I can imagine the loss of scent-based recall to be really frustrating is when you depend on it to feel connected to a loved one or a positive memory. In that case, resurrecting memory may be aided by looking to other strong recall-drivers; my (able to smell) partner, for example, asserts that songs can resurrect memories as strongly as scent. I believe it. We were listening to Fatboy Slim last night and literally began to regress.
Memory might also be aided by entering a kind of meditative state, blocking out surrounding senses in order recall previous ones. I do this if I really want to recall a moment; it’s eyes-closed, focusing on recalling visual details, focusing on feelings. I’m a vivid dreamer, probably because of this kind of world building. But I swear it’s what best brings memories alive.
While there are dozens of tools for how to remember facts, like pneumonic devices, there is little research informing “how to resurrect positive memories.” In fact, most research seems geared towards helping forget traumatic ones, like extinction learning. I was at first very excited to discover the UK Alzheimer’s Society web page titled “Supporting someone with memory loss,” and then very disappointed to find it limited to advice for using clocks and calendars to help patients get through the days. A slightly more helpful article by the Social Care Institute for Excellence emphasises the importance of helping dementia patients remember positive memories by talking with them about them. This sounds simplistic, but I agree it’s important; especially in lockdown, I realise how much I miss being with friends and reminiscing about good times. So perhaps this technique should not to be underestimated.
Then, there are new moments and memories. Discovering ones that don’t at all depend on smell is essential to enjoying life without it — and there are plenty of these.
To me, good times and emotional connections are made in moments that combine strong visual, physical, oral, tactile and social stimulations: museums, theme parks, theatre, farmer’s markets, nightclubs, historical sites, haunted houses, skate parks, Las Vegas, Tokyo. Anywhere that provides a cacophony of senses: I’m here for it. And though not exactly a “sense,” adrenalin is also a big part of my life. Surfing and snowmobiling, for example, combine sensations of atmosphere with natural beauty, physical activity and unique thrill. Of course I enjoy “dinner with friends,” including the social interaction (much missed during lockdown) as well as my taste-bud driven enjoyment of food, but I also get incredible depth and delight out of these other experiences — especially in the company of friends.
Smell may play a role in all of these examples, but it doesn’t alone define them. And believe it or not, that fact didn’t even occur to me before writing this article — my partner pointed it out. But I think it’s why I don’t question that life without smell can be fulfilling; so much of what I’ve come to enjoy in life doesn’t depend on smell at all. The idea of pursuing entirely new experiences may be daunting, though I hope it will also be freeing. There’s a whole world of experiences waiting to be appreciated with new eyes, ears and hands… if not with noses.
I’m paranoid about how I smell.
“My partner is sick of me asking if I smell. I’m paranoid, so at this point I probably stink of way too much deodorant.”
“I used to be so particular about my smell. Now I don’t know how to manage it!”
Having a loved one is helpful. Pre-lockdown, back when I went out in public, I used to make my partner smell my jeans regularly. (Because who wears jeans just once?) But my secret is that I know I can get away with wearing them about four times before they start to smell, because I’ve been asking him for years… I just enjoy letting him help.
First of all, keep in mind that if you generally keep the same routine you had before you lost your sense of smell, you will generally smell the same. Bathe regularly, use the same products (or seek an opinion if you change it up), and pay attention to how often you “take chances,” like re-wear clothes.
And if you didn’t before pay much attention or keep a regular routine, now is a good time to start. I brush my teeth twice a day (morning, night), shower daily (morning, after working out), use deodorant (morning), and avoid wearing clothes more than once unless they have that unique inborn resistance (like jeans or jackets). I’m not much for perfume, but when the occasion arises I prefer spray bottles, because one spray signals “that’s enough.” And I do seek feedback, especially when changing something about my routine — like new perfume. If you’re establishing a new routine, having a trusted friend or partner provide feedback for a few weeks might make you more confident that your routine is an odour-friendly one.
Lastly, though I’m acutely aware of my habits, I do forget things and make mistakes. Especially forgetting if I put deodorant on. Sometimes I feel around for it so much that I rub it right off. My solution? Keep a spare stick in the glove compartment, or my purse. Back-ups are a good idea. And again, if you have a trusted friend who doesn’t mind giving you a whiff — all the better.
All of this amounts to having systems, routines and back-ups that enable confidence in your smell, and sometimes a little help from a friend.
This has impacted my relationship and intimacy.
“Losing this sense has made it so hard for me to connect with my husband. I miss his smell and the taste of his kiss. I feel distant from him.”
“I desperately miss smelling my wife, it’s normally a comfort and now it feels like maybe she’s not really there.”
I met a man last year who had lost his sense of smell due to a head injury. I was the first person he’d ever met without a sense of smell and almost the first thing he told me — with tears in his eyes — was how disconnected it made him feel from his fiancée. He knew she was the same person, but her presence was different and she suddenly felt foreign. I also spoke with his fiancée, who was suffering at the other end of this. It was quite the Christmas party.
I am familiar with intimacy through associations of touch, taste, sight and sound — but primarily touch. So I can only imagine how overwhelming scent becomes in a physical moment, and how it defines romantic relationships. And while it’s easy for me to say there is the potential to enjoy “intimacy” by focusing on the these other sensations while with a loved one, I understand that the identity of a person is not so easy to reframe. However, I do think that by focusing on other aspects of sensation during intimacy, perhaps emotional connections can be reframed— and maybe new sensations will begin to resonate more strongly.
Without getting X-rated, I can say that sex for me is a very focused experience. I purposely block out other senses, like light and sound, to focus on the receptors of touch and feel. Much like closing your eyes to focus on your food. (I swear I’m not living a Fifty Shades fantasy… but maybe there is something to blindfolds.) I also could see how for some, the opposite may be true — for example, if you’re a highly visual person, perhaps lights-on will be a helpful approach. And if sound is what stimulates you, it might be time for poetry (or Fifty Shades).
Obviously, I empathise that sex is an especially sensitive subject for many couples, especially when it involves feedback and change. But the loss of a sense really warrants it. For that reason, I hope you feel empowered to open a conversation about how your physical sense is impacting your ability to sense the moment — and use that hard fact to encourage your partner to explore changes in intimacy together, as well as to assure them it has nothing to do with them, personally.
Smell is also a trigger for intimacy. Links between smell and sexual desire are under-explored by science; however, a 2019 PsyPost.org article entitled “Many smell disorder patients report decreased sexual desire after olfactory loss” cites a study in which about 29% of study participants reported “decreased sexual desire since the onset of olfactory loss.”
The man I met at the Christmas party told me that he never really felt “in the mood” because smell had played such a big role in his sex drive. But, he clarified, once sex was “on” he was always into it. What he describes is not impotency, and it’s not exactly Inhibited Sexual Desire, which Healthline.com defines as when “a person […] seldom, if ever, engages in sexual activities. They don’t initiate or respond to a partner’s sexual overtures.”
I am not a sex therapist. But in the empty void of research on this particular topic, I’m going to offer some advice. If you are like this man — if you love your partner and generally enjoy sex with them — it might be relationship-supportive to do what many low-sex-drive people do (including as many as 43% of women and 31% of men) and attempt to do it regularly, despite your lack of drive. This might involve a conversation in which you decide how often your partner desires sex to make sure their minimal needs are met (if it was once/week before, maybe that’s a good cadence to maintain). It may also include a conversation about who initiates sex and when — acknowledging what it takes for your partner to feel desired, and also how to decline sex without hurting feelings.
This all sounds very unromantic, but particularly if you are in a committed relationship it‘s probably worth it to have the most sensitive bits on the table. And to that end, maintaining your regular standards of affection —whether physical or not — could be a big net positive for you both.
Because like most difficult topics that surface in a relationship — it takes two. Openness with your partner, as well as reassurance as to the source of your feelings of distance, generally go a long way to ensure the strength of a good relationship. At minimum, you should both know: it’s not you, it’s your nose.
I try to stay hopeful it will return, but I’m depressed.
“Life just feels flat. I know I’m struggling with depression.”
“I’ve tried all kinds of things to get it back, but nothing works. Recently I’ve started trying to accept that it might be here to stay, and that’s actually been helpful.”
Is it possible to stay hopeful and search for solutions while at the same time accepting that your loss might be permanent? I’m not sure. Admittedly, I lean towards the latter — almost as soon as I developed tinnitus last year I wanted to accept that my life might forever include the soundtrack of a high-pitched whine. My partner is the opposite — when faced with anything medical, he immediately reads every self-diagnosing website and orders every piece of technology that offers relief or improvement. We all cope differently.
But the stages of grief remain the same. And as someone who has felt the loss of normal hearing, I can honestly say I’ve experienced all of them. Psycom.net has a pretty empathetic and detailed article on grief stages, and helpfully acknowledges that it can be brought on by “situations, relationships, or even substance abuse.” Losing a physical sense certainly applies. So acknowledging that feelings of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance (other research also lists ‘remorse’ and ‘hope’) is normal is one step; and another is the opportunity to address them. Whether you write out your feelings, research your way through it, or bond over it with others, these kind of coping mechanisms exist for a reason… and can’t hurt to try. And if you just want to scream into the wind, you can message me and I promise you’ll be heard.
No matter where you are in this journey — whether it’s been days or months without smell —know that you are not alone. And that feeling connected to others with a similar experience can be invaluable.
For me with tinnitus, simply watching a few videos about others provided immense relief. I underestimated how much I needed to physically see that people with tinnitus could go on to leave happy lives. Acceptance was also important. I was constantly toggling between hope and frustration; hope that my tinnitus could disappear, and frustration that it hadn’t yet. This became emotionally exhausting after a few weeks, and was in a way even more distracting and distressing than the physical issue itself. When I began to digest that tinnitus might be my new reality, it was actually easier it was to get through the days—the prospect of improvement felt more like an upside than a requirement, and it freed me to focus on how to cope.
And beyond coping, as I hope I’ve started to make the case for in this article — there is an awful lot about life to look forward to, including a world full of incredible experiences that don’t depend on smell.
Where can I go for more information?
There’s so much I haven’t covered, especially medical research on the origins of smell loss and the science behind it. Beyond anosmia, there are also parosmia and phantosmia, as well as a slew of less categorisable versions of smell and taste disorders. Therapies like AbScent’s “smell training”, acupuncture and other procedures are also being explored to assist with regaining or improving sense of smell. And because of the attention this topic is getting — unlike probably ever before — there is now also the possibility of new research and innovation.
Additionally, this is my first attempt to address these under-supported questions — so, I welcome comments on the usefulness of these insights, as well as further questions for exploration.
Here are some sites you may find helpful:
- “What Can Covid-19 Teach Us About the Mysteries of Smell?” by Brook Jarvis for The New York Times (Jan. 28, 2021)
- AbScent.org: A registered charity for those affected by anosmia or smell disorders.
- Fifthsense.org.uk: A registered charity for people affected by smell and taste disorders across the world.
- “Covid’s toll on smell and taste: what scientists do and don’t know” by Michael Marshall (Jan. 14, 2021)
- “Can a Loss of Taste and Smell Be a Symptom of Covid-19” for Healthline (last medically reviewed Oct. 12, 2020)