The shock came shortly after I had recovered from The Mother of All Colds — a vicious, lingering, energy-sapping upper respiratory monster that I quickly communicated to my poor wife. Both of us hacked, sniffled and suffered with the thing for several weeks. I soldiered on with hot tea, saline nasal spray, decongestants and what seemed like quarts of cough syrup. Slowly, grudgingly, the monster relaxed its grip — but at a cost.
My sense of smell had all but disappeared — a condition doctors call anosmia.
Anosmia — or its less severe cousin, hyposmia — appears to be quite common. Although the exact prevalence is unknown, the National Institutes of Health estimate that more than two million persons in the U.S. have an impaired sense of smell.
Causes range from benign nasal polyps (which block odors from reaching sensory cells in the nose) to serious neurological disorders. Viruses are probably the most common culprit, and, as in my case, anosmia may follow a recent cold or sinus infection, after other symptoms have abated. These viruses may actually damage the “smell receptor” cells that line our nasal passages.
Even worse, since taste and smell are closely linked, anosmia sufferers often complain of a diminished or altered sense of taste. While most sufferers will regain some sense of smell, the recovery period can last from months to years. And during that long wait, life may seem altered in strange and dispiriting ways, as I discovered.
Having recovered from my cold in mid-April, I was delighted to see lilacs blooming in our front yard. I’ve always associated lilacs with the idyllic, springtime outings of my childhood. My father would drive my sister and me out into the countryside, where huge lilac trees bloomed wild. We would cut off an armful of sprigs and bring them home to my beaming mother.
The deep, sensual fragrance of lilac has always nested in my brain, linked with these early memories. Yet now, when I bent down to smell our own lilacs, there was the scent of — almost nothing. I might as well have been sniffing Styrofoam. And that was only the first of many olfactory rebukes.
The evocative powers of taste and smell are famously depicted in Marcel Proust’s work, Remembrance of Things Past. The mere taste of a little sponge cake — la petite Madeleine — is enough to evoke a flood of childhood memories in the author. Proust wrote that long after our other memories lie in tatters, taste and smell “… remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest…”
The primal importance of smell seems to be rooted in our evolutionary development. As Dr. Elizabeth A. Krusemark and colleagues have shown, our sense of smell is intimately connected with the “emotional” regions of our brain. In fact, when we sniff a pleasant or a noxious odor, the sensory signal from the lining of the nose can bypass the “logic centers” of the brain and travel directly to the amygdala — the tiny brain region that mediates strong emotions. Smell is the most ancient of our senses, associated with primitive threat and reward situations. Someone with anosmia is unable not only to “smell the roses” — but also to sense that a piece of fish is rotten, or that there’s a gas leak in the house.
If you think this leaves anosmic people feeling very vulnerable, you’d be right. According to the Monell Chemical Senses Center, 46 percent of persons with anosmia describe feeling more vulnerable, compared with their normal state. An equal or even larger percentage report feeling isolated, angry or anxious. You might imagine that not smelling certain unpleasant odors would have an “upside” — for example, when using the bathroom. But for me, this wasn’t the case. After all, even our most intimate personal odors are a part of who we are, and my inability to sense these was surprisingly distressing.
Mainly, though, I experienced a deep sense of loss. I missed not merely the scent of lilacs, but the smell of freshly-brewed coffee and the fragrance of my wife’s newly-shampooed hair. And, to my surprise, I sorely missed the smell of my beloved books — the musty, vanilla scent of those old, first volumes; and the crisp, back-to-school smell of my textbooks. No e-book will ever capture these comforting scents.
The good news is, those damaged sensory cells in the lining of the nose are quite resilient and often regenerate in time. It’s been about four months now, and coffee is, once again, starting to smell like coffee. With any luck, my books will soon greet me again like fragrant old friends.