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A complex and dispiriting loss of smell

istockphoto/globe staff illustration

Earlier this month, when an ordinary cold turned into bronchitis and then pneumonia, my husband cooked me a pot of his delicious chicken soup. But I knew it was delicious only from memory: I had completely lost all sense of smell and taste. I could tell if something was salty (soy sauce) or sour (lemon) or sweet (banana) but there was no flavor behind those sensations. That’s because taste is not in the tongue but in the nose, where sense receptors send information through olfactory nerves to the brain. My severe sinus infection, apparently, had done some sort of damage to those receptor cells.

The condition is called anosmia, which sounds like a beautiful spring flower but is actually a complex and dispiriting disorder. We tend to underestimate how much these two “lesser” senses contribute to our lives. Without them, much of the color leached out of my days, as if the world had gone monochrome. I lost all interest in food. Nothing could stir my appetite: not garlicky shrimp, not tacos with extra chili powder, not even ice cream. With small variations (cool, crunchy) they all seemed the same to me. I started dropping pounds.

As the days of lost senses crossed into a week without any improvement, and against my better judgment, I researched anosmia on the Internet. There I found dreadful stories of people whose sense of smell left them after a bad cold for eight years, 15 years, and permanently; people who spiraled into depression without the enjoyment of food; dinner parties that became a small torture, “like inviting someone to a concert who can’t hear.” There were people who couldn’t tell they were eating spoiled food or smell a gas leak. The only treatments were steroids or awful surgeries. Everyone had a profound sense of loss. One patient in a study of anosmia said, “It feels like my body has lost a very close friend and is reminded as soon as it wakes up every morning.’’

I tried not to catastrophize. The loss of smell and taste is usually temporary and can be caused by a sinus infection or some drug interactions (or brain trauma or nasal polyps or multiple sclerosis or Parkinson’s disease . . . darn that Internet!) But it wasn’t like losing a limb. And it wasn’t like I was a chef or food critic whose livelihood was at stake.


I tried to be philosophical. I knew this was a powerful example of the “paved paradise” syndrome — you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone. This experience, I told myself, even if it lasts an agonizingly long time, will teach me to appreciate all my other senses more. I’ll never again take for granted the sound of a cardinal’s song or the feel of an icy plunge on a hot day. What I was really doing, of course, was bargaining with the Fates: Give me back my taste and smell, and I promise to be a better person. A more aware person.


I have a friend who once trained to be a hospice volunteer. As an exercise the volunteers were asked to write down five of their deepest pleasures — dancing, Chopin’s piano etudes, the beach, their grandchildren — on slips of paper. Then, one by one, those slips were taken away. This is what it is like to have a terminal illness, they were told: One by one the things you love are taken from you. I tried to tell myself my small loss was good training for the bigger losses I would suffer as I grew older and more infirm.

On the ninth day, and as mysteriously as it had left me, my smell and taste returned. One minute I couldn’t smell the brewing coffee and the next I was near tears, savoring every mundane swallow. A single orange can bring me to my knees: The way its volatile oils spray into the air as soon as the peel is breached, its molecules racing toward the olfactory cells to announce “orange” even before I take a single bite. Talk about a miracle of science!


I only hope I can make this sense of gratitude and wonder last. Anosmia may sound like a flower, but it’s really about learning to smell the roses.

Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.