The World Without Smell
As I've previously mentioned in my recent posts, I have been ecstatic to write about what the world is like without a sense of smell. This week, I wrote about my friend Barrett - a diagnosed anosmic who gave full consent to the information shared below.
WHAT IS ANOSMIA?
Flashback to a time when you were so sick that your nose was clogged and you could only breathe through your mouth. When our sense of smell is obstructed by our sickness, it makes it difficult to taste our food. I know that during those illnesses, I have thought to myself, "I cannot even imagine how I take smell for granted," and, "This is lasting forever, I just want to taste my food again." To an anosmic, this is their everyday life.
Anosmia is the lack of olfaction - the ability to perceive smell - for a certain duration of one's life. This can be temporary or congenital (present from birth). Anosmia can be presented in one's life by accident such as severing nerves in a car accident, nasal congestion, or even nasal polyps (noncancerous growths). The olfactory nerve sits right along a bone in the skull and can be easily sheered with head trauma which can lead to anosmia. The olfactory pathway is the only direct link from the outside world to the brain, which makes nasal infections extremely dangerous and can kill nerves in the brain that are responsible for smell. Below you can see that odor molecules travel into our nose, through the nasal cavity, and interacts with the olfactory bulb. (If you are interested more in the way our brains distinguish between smells, refer to my Essential Oils post). An important factor in the ability to smell is the olfactory bulb. The bulb itself is what the scents interact with to send messages to the brain via the olfactory nerve. Congenital Anosmia is caused by being born without olfactory bulbs as they never formed in the womb.
For my degree, I had to take almost every chemistry class that CSU offered, and it was the death of me to say the least. I struggled so much and it only started to make sense when I formed study groups with other students. That's when I met Barrett. Man is he a hoot! He's the mountain man that brews his own beer and is an alien to me because of his love for chemistry. All jokes aside - I had no idea that Barrett was anosmic until over a year of us studying together and taking classes together. Though I was studying the brain, I honestly had no idea what anosmia was or the varying causes of it. One of my goals with this blog is to supply real-life instances and examples, and Barrett was kind enough to share his story with me and allowed me to share it with all of you.
When Barrett was growing up, he had no idea that he had a disability. It was not until he was 10 years old that he became aware of his impairment. Him and his family were on a road trip when his mother started complaining of an awful smell in the car, (which ended up being his younger brother's fart). While the family jokingly spoke about making the younger brother ride on the roof, Barrett was perplexed by the statement because he could not smell anything. Once his mom realized that he could not smell the odor, it arose some concerns and red flags. Once his family returned from vacation, they took him straight into testing. What he learned from his own research was that he was at the average age that most congenital anosmics discover their disability because they are able to communicate and process unlike toddlers and babies.
THE ROAD TO DIAGNOSIS
I have written about the hardships of diagnosis before, but Barrett's story is one of the saddest I have heard. When his family returned home they immediately started to visit doctors. The first two doctors that he spoke to accused him of faking, while the third chalked it up to a nasal virus where they prescribed him antibiotics. With no movement in the right direction towards prognosis, they started to visit specialists. At this point, it was 1999 and no doctor they found could understand or process the idea that he had no smell without a previous trauma or nasal virus. As him and his family went to doctor after doctor, they finally lucked out. A specialist they visited knew immediately after hearing his case what the issue was.
The doctor started testing on Barrett with a simple smell test which anyone without anosmia should be able to pass, (which he told Barrett that he would personally pay him $100 if he passed). Barrett was instructed to close his eyes and would be asked to smell an item and identify it. With the item held up to his face, Barrett took a large inhale and smelled nothing. As he kept inhaling deeply and had no idea what the item was, he exhaled and granulated specs flew in his face - so he took a guess, "SAND!" The correct answer was coffee grounds, and Barrett did not receive the $100 bill.
The next and final test that was performed confirmed Barrett's diagnosis - Congenital Anosmia. The MRI revealed that he was born without olfactory bulbs. At this point, there was nothing the doctors could do for Barrett, as he would live forever without his sense of smell. Below is Barrett's MRI - for reference I have included a photo of an MRI that indicates where the olfactory bulb would normally be located.
LIVING WITH ANOSMIA AS A DISABILITY
For Barrett, this was the start of a life that revealed many difficulties that he would have to live with. When he was young, he was bullied, tricked into eating bad things, and held down and farted on. It caused tremendous depression in his early years and something that he has struggled with throughout his adult life. Below are the elements of Barrett's life that he told me are the hardest for him in his daily life:
As I've mentioned, Barrett loves chemistry. This makes it difficult as he cannot smell gas, smoke, chemicals, or anything that poses harm. He also cannot detect spoiled food or mold which makes being aware of harmful substances around him almost impossible.
With the inability to smell, he is unable to be aware of his body smell which caused a lot of anxiety for him. He is constantly paranoid that he smells poorly, or that his house, room, car, etc. smells badly. Sadly, he has full blown panic attacks about dating or having friends in his areas because people are polite to his face but then speak poorly about it behind his back.
Smell and taste are connected in ways that many are unaware of. Smell odorants and taste from our taste buds work together to send information to the brain to create a taste in the "flavor" cortex of our brain. Without smell, taste becomes almost non-existent.
As for Barrett, he cannot taste. He observes sensations such as: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and spicy, but there are no real flavors to these sensations. I also remember asking him about if eating was ever pleasuring for him, to which his response was, "Bitter beer and pizza!" He can still feel textures of foods and processes tastes and sensations as a "flavor." However, he reported never feeling fully satisfied from eating. He over eats trying to find satisfaction in food and flavor, or under eats as there is no real satisfaction from the task of eating, (a common problem for anosmics).
I'd like to thank Barrett for letting me share his story on the internet, as I think getting this message out to the world is so important. Don't be fooled - he still loves his beer, hiking, his dog, and is a jokester and genuine person. He will be graduating from CSU next semester with his Bachelors Degree in Chemistry. But he is living with a disability that is overlooked in society.
The biggest point that I would like to share this week is that not all disabilities involve wheelchairs or are easily noticed. The sense of smell is taken for granted, and sadly only recognized for those who do lose their sense of smell later in life. Be grateful in the times of sickness that your sense of smell and taste will likely return, and always protect your head from trauma and nasal infections.