Smell Disorders

Can smell disorders be treated?

Yes. Some people experience relief from smell disorders. Since certain medications can cause a problem, adjusting or changing that medicine may ease its effect on the sense of smell. Others recover their ability to smell when the illness causing their olfactory problem resolves. For patients with nasal obstructions such as polyps, surgery can remove the obstructions and restore airflow. Not infrequently, people enjoy a spontaneous recovery because olfactory neurons may regenerate following damage.

What research is being done?

The NIDCD (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders) supports basic and clinical investigations of chemosensory disorders at institutions across the Nation. Some of these studies are conducted at several chemosensory research centers, where scientists are making advances that help them understand our olfactory system and may lead to new treatments for smell disorders.

Some of the most recent research into our sense of smell is also the most exciting. Though a complete understanding of the uniquely sophisticated olfactory system is still in progress, recent studies on how receptors recognize odors, together with new technology, have revealed some long-hidden secrets to how the olfactory system manages to detect and discriminate between the many chemical compounds that form odors. Besides uncovering the physical mechanisms our bodies use to accomplish the act of identifying smell, these findings are helping scientists view the system as a model for other molecular sensory systems in the body. Further, scientists are confident that they are now laying the foundation to understanding the finest details about our sense of smell--research that may help them understand how smell affects and interacts with other physiological processes.

Since scientists began studying the olfactory system, much has been discovered about how our chemosenses work, especially in how they're affected by aging. Like other senses in our bodies, our sense of smell can be greatly affected simply by our growing older. In fact, scientists have found that the sense of smell begins to decline after age 60. Women at all ages are generally more accurate than men in identifying odors, although smoking can adversely affect that ability in both men and women.

Another area of discovery has been the olfactory system's reaction to different medications. Like our sense of taste, our sense of smell can be damaged by certain medicine. Surprisingly, other medications, especially those prescribed for allergies, have been associated with an improvement of the sense of smell. Scientists are working to find out why this is so and develop drugs that can be used specifically to help restore the sense of smell to patients who've lost it. Also, smell cells (along with taste cells) are the only sensory cells that are regularly replaced throughout the life span. Scientists are examining these phenomena, which may provide ways to replace these and other damaged sensory and nerve cells.

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