The common cold with nasal congestion is the most common cause for a partial, temporary loss of smell. Obstruction in the nasal passages, particularly from polyps or nasal fractures, also is common. Normal aging also may cause a loss of smell, which may be progressive, becoming complete and permanent.
What is smell?
Smell results when individual molecules, suspended in the air, are inhaled and attach to receptors in the mucous membranes of the nose, stimulating nerves that connect directly to the brain. Any problem within this olfactory system — congestion or obstruction in the nose, inflammation of its lining, nerve damage, or altered brain function — affects your ability to smell normally.
While total loss of smell is fairly rare, and the more common causes improve with time, symptoms are sometimes severe enough to result in significant problems or distress. An intact sense of smell is necessary to accurately taste and enjoy food; losing this sense could cause you to lose interest in eating, potentially leading to weight loss, malnutrition or even depression.
Problems with the inner lining of your nose
Conditions that cause temporary irritation or congestion of the mucous membranes lining the inside of your nose are the most common cause of loss of smell. These may include:
- Acute sinusitis (sinus infection)
- Common cold
- Hay fever (allergic rhinitis)
- Influenza (flu)
- Nonallergic rhinitis (chronic congestion or sneezing not related to allergies)
Obstructions of your nasal passages
Conditions or obstructions that block the flow of air through your nose can include:
- Bony deformity inside your nose
- Nasal polyps
Damage to your brain or nerves
Less commonly, the nerves leading to the olfactory center of the brain or to the brain itself can be damaged or deteriorate due to:
- Alzheimer's disease
- Brain aneurysm (a bulge in an artery in your brain)
- Brain surgery
- Brain tumor
- Chemical exposures to certain insecticides or solvents
- Huntington's disease
- Kallmann's syndrome (a rare genetic condition)
- Klinefelter syndrome (a rare condition in which males have an extra X chromosome in most of their cells)
- Korsakoff's psychosis (a brain disorder caused by the lack of thiamin)
- Medications (for example, some high blood pressure medications)
- Multiple sclerosis
- Multiple system atrophy (MSA) (a progressive disorder of the nervous system)
- Niemann-Pick (Pick's disease, a form of dementia)
- Paget's disease of bone (a disease that affects your bones, sometimes facial ones)
- Parkinson's disease
- Radiation therapy
- Sjogren's syndrome (an inflammatory disease that generally causes dry mouth and eyes)
- Traumatic brain injury
- Zinc deficiency
- Zinc-containing nasal sprays (taken off the market in 2009)
Jan. 11, 2018
Causes shown here are commonly associated with this symptom. Work with your doctor or other health care professional for an accurate diagnosis.
- NIH senior health: Problems with smell. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. https://nihseniorhealth.gov/problemswithsmell/aboutproblemswithsmell/01.html. Accessed Sept. 20, 2016.
- Flint PW, et al. Physiology of olfaction. In: Cummings Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 6th ed. Philadelphia, Pa.: Saunders Elsevier; 2015. http://www.clinicalkey.com. Accessed Sept. 19, 2016.
- Smell disorders. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/smelltaste/smell.asp. Accessed Sept. 20, 2016.
- Mann NM, et al. Anatomy and etiology of taste and smell disorders. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Sept. 20, 2016.
- Mann NM, et al. Evaluation and treatment of taste and smell disorders. http://www.uptodate.com/home. Accessed Sept. 20, 2016.