Anosmia is when you can’t detect odors. It’s usually a temporary side effect from a cold or sinus infection that goes away when your cold or sinus infection clears. But sometimes anosmia may be symptom of other, more serious medical issues like diabetes or traumatic brain injury.
Anosmia is when you can’t detect an odor, whether it comes from pies fresh from the oven or smelly socks piled in a corner. It’s usually a temporary side effect of a cold or sinus infection. Our sense of smell fades as we age, so people age 50 and older may have long-lasting anosmia. In some cases, anosmia may be a symptom of other, more serious medical issues like a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
The process starts with substances that smell and give off tiny molecules. When you inhale, the molecules glide into your nose and land on a tiny patch of tissue high inside it.
The patch is home to specialized cells called olfactory sensory neurons. These cells have a direct connection to your brain. When scent-bearing molecules attach to them, the cells notify your brain, which identifies the smell. Your brain then lets you know if something smells good or bad.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
You can lose your sense of smell suddenly or over time. Early on, you may notice familiar scents are different, like a favorite cologne that seems to smell less potent than it did before.
Anosmia may be a side effect of many common medical issues, including conditions that block your nose or interfere with signals sent from your special scent cells to your brain.
Conditions that block your nose are:
Conditions that affect receptors in your nose include:
Other causes may include:
Rarely, people are born with anosmia, or congenital anosmia. That means they’ll never be able to detect odors. About 1,000 people in the United States have congenital anosmia.
There’s more to anosmia than not being able to enjoy sweet or savory scents. Complications may include:
Otolaryngologists diagnose anosmia. They’ll ask you when you first noticed you can’t detect odors and if the issue developed over time or suddenly. They’ll look inside your nose and do an odor identification test.
Odor identification tests involve sniffing and identifying different substances and telling the difference between substances. Your provider will also check your ability to identify odors as they become increasingly faint because they dilute the substance making the smell.
In most cases, treating the underlying condition improves your sense of smell. For example, if you have sinusitis, antibiotics can help clear up the infection. If certain medications affect your sense of smell, switching medications may help ease your anosmia symptoms. If something is blocking your nose, like a nasal polyp, or you have a deviated septum, you may need surgery.
You can’t always prevent anosmia because so many things can cause it. In general, protecting yourself from colds and other respiratory conditions may reduce your risk of losing your sense of smell.
Often, anosmia is a side effect of many common medical issues. You’ll be able to smell again once the underlying issue goes away. Rarely, people have congenital anosmia, for which there’s no known cure.
If you have anosmia, you can’t detect troubling odors like smoke in your house or workplace or spoiled food. But you can take precautions:
Anosmia related to colds, flus and infections usually goes away within a few days. Talk to a healthcare provider if your cold or flu clears up and you still can’t detect odors.
If you have anosmia, understanding your condition can put your mind at ease and help you make decisions regarding treatment. Here are a few questions you may want to ask your provider:
Yes, but tasting things won’t seem the same as it did before you had anosmia. Your tongue can detect sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami flavors. But without your sense of smell, you wouldn’t be able to detect subtle differences between them.
Anosmia means you can’t detect odors. Ageusia means you can’t taste food or drink. You can have anosmia without having ageusia, but you can have both conditions, given the close connection between your sense of smell and taste.
Taste and smell are chemical senses that work together. When you can’t smell foods and drinks, it affects how they taste. Say you take a bite of warm cherry pie:
If you have parosmia, your sense of smell is distorted. For example, you may smell a cherry pie, but your brain tells you that you’re smelling spoiled milk.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Anosmia means you’ve lost your sense of smell. Often, it’s a side effect of common medical issues like colds, seasonal allergies or polyps in your nose. Your sense of smell usually comes back once the underlying issue goes away or you receive treatment. Sometimes anosmia doesn’t go away. That’s when you should talk to a healthcare provider because it may be a symptom of serious medical conditions like diabetes or a brain injury.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/30/2023.
Learn more about our editorial process.