This Is What It’s Like to Live Without Smell

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Because of Covid-19, thousands of people around the world have lost their sense of smell, some of them for months. But like so many other symptoms of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, anosmia, or the inability to smell, isn’t a new phenomenon. Anosmia can be caused by viral infections like the flu, by traumatic brain injuries, or by nasal polyps. Some people are simply born without the sense. Although it’s often overlooked, smell disorders like anosmia or hyposmia, a reduced ability to smell, are relatively common problems, affecting as many as one in four Americans over the age of 40. Among older people, the rate is even higher.

Though we often fail to appreciate being able to smell, living without it can be both a physical and emotional trial. Anosmics can’t tell if something on the stove is burning, and because smell and taste are intricately linked, they can’t experience complex flavors. Many people with chronic smell loss report feelings of depression, anxiety, and isolation.

WIRED sat down with Duncan Boak, founder of Fifth Sense, a nonprofit based in the United Kingdom that has provided support and information to people with smell disorders since 2012, to find out what it’s like to live with anosmia and about how he’s adapted. (He’s also a coauthor on the report linking smell loss with depression.)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

WIRED: What was it like when you first realized you couldn’t smell?

Duncan Boak: I’d been in hospital for a week, and I considered myself lucky to be alive because I’d fallen down a flight of stairs onto a concrete floor and hit the back of my head. The day I got out of hospital and I got home, I was working out: “Am I still OK? Is everything working?” It was when I was eating a meal that I thought, “This doesn’t taste of anything.” And then I realized I couldn’t smell and my initial reaction was, “This is really odd.”

How did you learn about your own condition?

This was in 2005 and I didn’t have ready access to the internet at the time. I went to see my family doctor who said, “Oh right, this is very rare. I’ve not met anyone who this has happened to before, but I’ve heard it can happen. We don’t know much about it. We don’t really know much about the sense of smell or how it works. It might come back of its own accord. Give it six months to a year. See if anything changes. If not, you’ll just have to live with it.” No one I spoke to—friends or family—had heard of this happening to anyone, either. It felt very much like an anomaly. I think the crucial thing for me was, as I know now, I lost something that I didn’t actually know I had.

Loss of smell is often discounted as being unimportant or not as serious as other kinds of sensory losses. How do you explain what the impact of smell loss is to someone who might not understand it?

Just imagine yourself lying in bed on a Sunday morning with your partner and you’ve got the duvet pulled over you. You’re dozing and it’s the smell of your partner—the skin, the hair, their smell—because we all smell differently. We all have this individual, specific smell. It’s the smell that tells you that it’s them next to you and no one else. And think about how important that is in terms of that emotional connection to your partner. Then just imagine it was taken away and you were told you would never ever get that emotional connection to that person in that way again. How would that feel?

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