Your chemosensory warning system

Your chemosensory warning system

Edith Kermit Roosevelt

Smell or taste problems may signal disease.

If you experience loss of smell and/or taste or distortions of these senses, you should take these symptoms seriously. They can help doctors diagnose underlying disease.

“Abnormalities in smell and taste functions accompany and even signal the existence of various diseases, including diabetes, hypertension, malnutrition, and some neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s.” This warning is from the National Institute on Deafness and other Communicable Disorders (NIDCD) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in its fact sheet entitled “Smell and Taste Disorders.”

If your chemosensory system of taste and smell is functioning properly, it also serves as an early warming system for environmental threats to your health, NIDCD says. Smell and taste alert us to fires, poisonous fumes, leaking gas, and spoiled foods.

Dr. Richard L. Doty, Director of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School’s Smell and Taste Center, Dr. James B. Snow, Jr., NIDCD Director, and other scientists at the Philadelphia Smell and Taste Center have studied 750 people who complained of olfactory and taste problems.

According to NIH Healthline: “The scientists recently reported that upper respiratory infections, head trauma, and chronic sinus conditions caused deficiencies of smell in 60 percent of cases. A larger percentage of women than men had smell deficiencies related to upper respiratory infection; a greater number of males had impaired sense of smell attributable to head trauma.”

Healthline also noted that Dr. Doty found distortions in smell or taste perceptions could be associated with a variety of underlying causes, such as depression, antidepressant drugs, or thyroid diseases.

Of the more than 10 million Americans estimated in one study to have chemosensory disorders, “the predominant problem is a natural decline in smell ability that typically occurs after age 60,” according to NIDCD.

How are smell and taster disorder diagnosed?

By measuring the lowest concentration of a chemical that a person can accurately detect and recognize. For example, in the so-called “scratch and sniff” test, pieces of treated paper are scratched to release different odors, an attempt is made to identify each odor from a list of possibilities by sniffing them.

In taste testing, a simple “taste and rinse” procedure of chemicals may be applied directly to specific areas of the tongue.

Can smell and taste disorders be treated?

If a particular medication causes smell or taste disorder, the problem can be eliminated by simply discontinuing or changing the medicine. Patients with serious respiratory infections or seasonal allergies can expect to regain their smell or taste by simply waiting until the disease has run its course.

When more serious cause for the disorder exists — a brain tumor, for example, — correcting the larger medical problem will also correct the loss of smell and taste. Occasionally, too, chemosenses return to normal just as spontaneously as they disappeared.

What research is being done?

Although certain medications can cause chemosensory problems, others — notably anti-allergy drugs — seem to improve the sense of taste and smell. NIDCD is sponsoring research by Pennsylvania investigators to find medicines similar to allergy drugs that can treat chemosensory losses with few side effects.

What can you do to help yourself?

Proper diagnosis by a trained professional is important, NIDCD scientists stress. Diagnosis may lead to effective treatment of an underlying cause for the disturbance. Where the disorder is not reversible, counseling is available.

COPYRIGHT 1991 Vegetus Publications

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group