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Anosmia (loss of smell)

Anosmia is defined as the temporary or permanent lack of smell. Theoretically, hyposmia refers to sense of smell being reduced but you will sometimes hear this being referred to as anosmia too.

It can occur for a number of reasons including illness, injury, obstruction or allergy e.g. head injury, sinus problems, dementia, hay fever or polyps. Drug use (e.g. cocaine), prescription medications or aging can also be responsible. In some instances there are medications that can help (e.g. with sinusitis) but often there aren’t. Latterly we have heard how many people who have had COVID-19 have been affected by it as well, and research on this started to emerge as early as spring 2020. In most instances the loss of smell is temporary and comes back slowly after a few weeks but for some it has had a longer lasting impact.

Losing your sense of smell can be upsetting and the distress caused is often massively underestimated. Many years ago, a work colleague of mine lost her sense of smell after a head injury. She was a keen gardener and loved her roses. She was devastated that she could no longer enjoy the stimulus of her rose garden in the same way. Smell is an important sense and an integral part of life. Detecting an aroma such as burning or gas alerts us to danger, inhaling our favourite scent can uplift us, the smell of freshly cut grass reminds of the season we are in and we can detect the presence of a loved one by the smell of the aftershave or perfume they wear.  Smells are linked to the past by evoking memories or times in our lives, but also signal what is happening in the present. Inhaling the aroma of a meal you are cooking for example, heightens the desire to eat it. It increases your enjoyment of the meal and we should not forget how closely smell and taste are linked. Smell is simply woven into every part of our life. 

As an aromatherapist, anosmia is both worrying and fascinating all at the same time. In our profession we understand the importance of smell and the joy it can bring. We are also in an excellent position to help by offering smell training with our essential oils.

Smell training works on the principle of repeatedly attempting to smell just a few aromas. Generally an aroma from each category: floral, spicy, fruity and resinous.

The essential oils used are generally lemon, eucalyptus, clove and rose (this comes from research on the subject). The essential oils can be provided via an inhaler stick, smelling strips (though these don’t last very long) or by placing some essential oil on a cotton pad in jars. The inhaler stick or jar should be labelled with the essential oil name.

It should be noted that people can also use every day things from their home or garden too. Orange or lime peel, coffee, peppermint essence, vanilla pods, spices, fresh mint or basil plants and dried lavender may all be worthy contenders.

The client should take themselves somewhere calm and simply gently inhale the aroma for 20-30 seconds at time. This should be done twice a day.

They should make notes of anything they notice whilst smelling (using a diary) e.g. do they feel any sensation or movement in their nose or their body? Visualising the thing they are smelling, thinking of a time they have smelt this and how they would describe the aroma can also be helpful.

There are some instances where smell does not return but for most it’s a slow, staggered process over weeks and months. How blessed we are as aromatherapists that we can support people in this process.

Resources – this is a Covid-19 anosmia specific resource

References Damm, M., Pikart, L.K., Reimann, H., Burket, S.,Goktas, O., Haxel, B.,Frey, S., Charalampakis, I., Beule, A., Renner, B., hummel, T., Huttenbrink K. (2013) Olfactory training is helpful in post infectious olfactory loss: a randomised, controlled multicenter study. The Laryngoscope The American Laryngological Rhinological and Otological Society Inc.

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