Let’s Talk About Anosmia

{a primer on a condition that both is and isn’t a big deal}

Never heard the term? Learn about some people’s experiences in this vivid video. Evidence suggests I had a sense of smell when I was little, because my mother, who also doesn’t have a sense of smell, would have my smell-check my little sister’s diapers. (Cruel or clever? You decide.) But certainly by 10 or so it was clear that I had no reliable sense of smell. These days, I catch occasional whiffs, especially when pregnant, but there are many, many things I should be able to smell and don’t. It’s always a little embarrassing to bring it up, so sometimes it’s easier just to pretend I can smell the candle’s lovely scent or the frying bacon. When I do admit I can’t smell whatever it is, the same questions inevitably follow:

Things I Get Asked:

  • Why don’t you have a sense of smell?

I don’t know. Maybe it’s genetic, since my mom also can’t smell, or maybe it’s the result of quite a lot of allergies and allergy treatments when I was 9 or 10. My sister lost her sense of smell for awhile and regained it with allergy treatment, but mine has never returned in full force.

  • Does that mean you can’t taste?

Maybe? I have been known to drink spoiled milk without realizing it. But I enjoy food. How can you tell? A fellow anosmiac notes she has on more than one occasion accidentally served her family peppermint tea without realizing it because she couldn’t smell it. I just read in writing this piece that it can lead to the overuse of salt and sugar in one’s diet, so that’s my new go-to excuse. The more you know!

  • Are your other senses stronger?

I just read a book — All the Light We Cannot See — with a blind protagonist, and the lyrical descriptions from her perspective definitely suggest she observes more than others with her remaining senses — but I’m pretty sure this is poetic license. At the very least, in my case, as discussed, I probably can’t taste as well as other people, and I wear glasses. No one has ever commented on my bat-like hearing and I’m not freakishly sensitive to touch, so I think in my case, at least, no.

  • I bet that comes in handy. 

This is actually not a super helpful thing to say, Random Stranger. (Also, it’s not a question, but it’s one of the most common responses I get.) Certainly, if I were blind or deaf, there would be many more drawbacks, but let’s examine a few for anosmia:

  • Burning stuff: Just the other day, the motor of my vacuum cleaner belched smoke because I didn’t see that smoke was pouring out of it. Once J came home to Parmesan rinds engulfed in merry flames under the broiler. You miss a lot when you can’t smell smoke.
Bake until fragrant. K.
  • Cooking instructions: Recipes that instruct you to “sauté until fragrant,” for instance, are mysteries. I mean, it’s better than telling a blind person to bake until brown around the edges or a deaf person to listen for popping, but it’s pretty opaque nonetheless. I am also less likely to season things to taste because I suspect my perceptions are off.
  • Babies: from the good (baby heads) to the gross/helpful (diapers), I know I’m missing out on a lot here.
  • Memory: It crops up a lot in books, occasionally in conversation. Think of this passage, from The Poisonwood Bible:

“Once every few years, even now, I catch the scent of Africa.  It makes me want to keen, sing, clap up thunder, lie down at the foot of a tree and let the worms take whatever of me they can still use.  I find it impossible to bear.”

I imagine the experience as being comparable to the way a song can suddenly transport you to another time, but those allusions are lost on me. I’ve been to equatorial Africa, too, but it was a scentless experience for me.

Missed out on: the scent of goatsmeat; equatorial rain smell; outhouse reek

Certainly, there are times when it’s convenient not to smell. I’ve never smelled the reek of a bus crammed with middle schoolers on a rainy Florida day, the off-putting odor of stinky cheese (mmm), but should I really be congratulated when I miss out on so much good, too? I cannot sleep in my husband’s hoodie that smells like him when he’s away; my favorite Pendleton holds no romantic scent of campfire. Maybe save your congratulations.

Sorry, baby. I can’t sniff your head.

5 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Anosmia

  1. I didn’t even know this was a thing. Thanks for sharing. Now I’m thinking about all roles that both lovely and awful smells have played in my life… You’re right– the yucko smells serve a purpose in survival.


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