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Making Sense of Your Sense of Smell

Michael T. Gaslin, MD

Spring and summer are great times to enjoy the outdoors in North Carolina. The sweet scent of magnolia trees and flowers may blend in with the damp smell of morning dew.

While smells can be pleasant, they also can be important for health and safety. Natural gas leaks are first detected by an unpleasant smell. The leftovers in your refrigerator may give you a warning smell if they are spoiled or rotten. These smells, though not pleasant, could save your life!

So it is unfortunate that 2.7 million Americans suffer from a severely diminished sense of smell. Even more Americans have temporary or minor disturbances of smell, which can greatly affect quality of life.

If you suffer from a decreased sense of smell, it is important to seek the advice of your physician. Rarely, a decreased sense of smell could be the sign of a more serious health condition. More commonly, a decreased sense of smell may be treatable. Why miss out on the pleasantness of smell if it can be helped?

Your sense of smell is quite complicated. Your smell center is at the top of your nasal cavity, tucked behind many structures in your nose. When you breathe in through your nose to smell a flower, the odors from the flower enter your nostril. Then, they take the most incredible journey. They swirl gently inside your nose through the action of "turbinates", small bones in your nose that twist the air in different directions. As the air is being swirled, it is also being moisturized by the lining of your nose. Then, small amounts of the air make it up to the "olfactory" lining at the top of your nasal cavity. It is here that the odors are sampled by the delicate smell sensors.

The most common problem is a lack of airflow. When you can't breathe enough air in, the odors won't make it to the smell center. Allergies can be a common cause of obstruction, as can structural problems such as a deviated septum or polyps. If you have trouble breathing through your nose and a decreased sense of smell, there is a good chance you have a treatable condition.

So if you have trouble smelling the flowers or if your favorite meal just doesn’t smell the way it should, seek the advice of your physician, who just might be able to help you breathe (and smell) easier.