When you smell or taste spoiled food, you wouldn’t eat it, right? You stay away from its foul smell or disgusting taste because your body knows you can get sick if you eat it. Ingesting food that has gone bad may result to nasty symptoms of food poisoning like nausea and vomiting. Some cases of food poisoning can lead to death.
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Have you ever encountered a temporary loss of taste or smell? You must have gotten a bad case of the colds at least once in your life, remember how difficult it was to taste or smell? Now, imagine if you had been given spoiled food during that time. It’s possible you would have continued with your meal without noticing and suffered the consequences later on.
The Importance of Smell and Taste
Over 200,000 people visit a doctor each year to report problems related with taste and smell. Loss of the sense of taste and smell may not be as debilitating as losing your sight or having your arms or legs cut off, but these two certainly affect the way you enjoy life.
Without the sense of smell, how would you appreciate fragrant perfume or the scent of flowers? When your wife cooks you breakfast in the morning, how would you get excited with the aroma of fried garlic and freshly brewed coffee?
Without the sense of taste, how would you enjoy good food and beverage? You wouldn’t distinguish sweet candy from salty fish, sour citrus from bitter gourd. Taste makes us want to eat so that our bodies get the proper nutrition that is necessary. Without taste, eating would feel like a task you just need to do 3 times a day to stay alive – that would be horrible!
Combine taste and smell and your pleasure meter is brought up a notch with your ability to enjoy “flavor”. Taste only tells you sweet, salty, bitter, sour and savory, but flavor tells you that the sweet bar you’re eating is actually chocolate! Yup, it’s true. Flavor involves both senses and if you take one away, your experience of eating chocolate totally changes.
Apart from allowing us to indulge on great food and fragrances, smell and taste also protect us from detectable dangers like, as mentioned earlier, eating spoiled food or letting us know when there is a fire or gas leakage before we even see or feel it. It warns us if the clear, harmless looking liquid we see is toxic or not.
How Smell and Taste Works
Both senses – smell and taste are part of our body’s chemosensory system, or simply referred to as the “chemical senses”. This is because taste and smell both work by making sense of the chemicals surrounding us – the substances that combine to create a dish or the millions of molecules that comprise different odors.
So how do you actually “smell” or “taste” molecules? Let’s discuss each chemical sense individually:
The Sense of Smell
A patch of tissue inside your nose houses a group of specialized sensory cells that are directly connected to your brain. These cells are called “olfactory sensory neurons”.
What happens is that the molecules released by substances around us – like freshly baked bread – stimulates an olfactory neuron. A smell can do this by either going through your nostrils or through the roof of your throat (which is connected to the nose as well). The latter is how you detect flavors – when you chew food, aromas are released and reaches your olfactory neuron through the roof of your throat.
Each of your olfactory neuron is responsible for receiving and detecting one odor, and once an odor is detected, it sends a message to your brain so that you can identify it. Now, sometimes scents become complicated that it is possible that more than one neuron is stimulated at a time. Your brain also detects flavors by combining what your olfactory neurons are saying combined with what your taste buds are telling you.
The Sense of Taste
Our ability to taste is another scientific feat on its own. We are able to tell great tasting food from unpalatable ones of the millions of taste cells called “gustatory cells” that are clustered within taste buds of the tongue, lining of your throat and roof of the mouth. Did you know that we’re born with around 10,000 taste buds?
When we chew food or drink soup, these substances combine with our saliva and release molecules that stimulate these gustatory cells. Like the nose, there are specific taste cells responsible for detecting and identifying a taste quality. Your gustatory cells send signals to your brain to interpret the taste or group of tastes that are being detected.
As mentioned earlier, there are five basic taste qualities: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory or “umami”. Umami is brought by glutamate, which can be found naturally in protein-rich foods or artificially in form our monosodium glutamate, also known as “vetsin”. Most meals today combine two or more taste qualities at a time and it is up to your brain to make sense of it all.
The Common Chemical Sense
Both smell and taste are also influenced by groups of nerve endings called “the common chemical sense”, which is another chemosensory mechanism. The common chemical sense helps us identify irritating substances like onions (causing tears to come out) and peppers (causing a burning sensation in the mouth). It can also determine soothing properties of peppermint (creating a calm, minty feel). These nerve ending groups can be found in the moist parts of the mouth, throat, nose and eyes.
Other specialized nerves from the chemosensory system also detect other sensations like cold, heat, and texture.
When we eat or sniff, all members of this system send messages to the brain for interpretation. The result would be a complete experience, which could either be an enjoyable one or not.
Smell and Taste Disorders
Unlike other nerves in the body, all animals can replace damaged taste and smell cells. However, as we grow old, our ability to replace these cells is diminished. This is why about 25% of Americans aged 55 and up have a smell problem. The figures increase as we go up the age ladder: about 30% of seniors aged 70 to 80 and a whopping 75% of those aged 80 & above have a smell disorder.
Taste disorders, on the other hand, are quite rare because we have three different nerves that allow us to taste. If you damage one, there are two others that can still receive and identify the different taste qualities. Damaged taste nerves also grow back so the three nerve detectors are rarely orphaned.
Smell and taste are closely related that it can be quite confusing. Many people go to the doctor thinking they have a taste disorder but eventually find out that they actually have a smell disorder instead. Remember, flavor identification is a job of both gustatory and olfactory cells, so your problems of tasting chocolate or strawberry may actually be because of a smell problem.
What are the different smell and taste disorders? The most common one that has probably hit you at least once in your life is a temporary decrease in ability to taste and smell due to nasal congestion. This happens when you have the common cold or flu. Since your olfactory receptors are dulled down by the congestion, you can experience difficulty in identifying scents or tasting the flavors of food. Many of us lose the usual appetite to eat while sick.
Taste and smell disorders are categorized according to the level or intensity of loss or detection.
Hyposmia – a decrease in the ability to smell. Like my earlier example, hyposmia is usually a result of having upper respiratory infections or nasal congestion like when you have the common cold. Hyposmia is usually temporary and once the infection clears up, you’ll smell everything again like nothing happened.
Anosmia – total loss of smell or the inability to detect odors at all. Anosmia is usually a result of trauma in the nasal area or chronic infection of the nasal passages or sinuses. The mere process of growing old can cause a form of anosmia called “presbyosmia”, or loss of smell due to aging. In rare cases, this condition can be inherited
Dysosmia – when odor detection is distorted. Dysosmia happens when a familiar pleasant odor like fragrant perfume suddenly becomes foul or unpleasant to you. Sometimes people with dysosmia also experience anxiety, headaches, nausea, and shortness of breath.
Phantosmia – from the prefix “phantom” meaning “ghostly apparition”. Phantosmia happens when you smell something that no one else in the room smells. This condition occasionally indicates that you have an infection.
Hypogeusia – similar to its counterpart in smell, hyposmia, this condition is characterized by the decreased ability to taste. Viral infections, medication side effects and minor swelling of the mouth can cause hypogeusia.
Ageusia – is the total loss of taste. This condition may be caused by inflammation or infection in your mouth, head injury due to accidents or diseases like Bell’s palsy (i.e. inflammation of the facial nerves).
Dysgeusia – is the distorted detection of taste. Food that usually tasted sweet, for example, may suddenly taste sour to you if you have dysgeusia. Sometimes, dysgeusia may be accompanied by burning mouth syndrome, which is a condition wherein a painful burning sensation is felt in the mouth.
Phantogeusia – commonly called “phantom taste perception”, it is a condition wherein a certain taste – usually an unpleasant one – persists even if you have nothing inside your mouth or have cleared it several times already. Infection or medication side effects can cause phantogeusia.
Causes of Taste and Smell Disorders
Apart from the natural degeneration caused by aging, about 20% of smell and taste disorders reported are caused by viral infections that damage the smell receptors in the nose.
Another 20% is due to diseases of the nasal cavity, like allergies, nasal polyps (i.e. noncancerous growths in the nose and sinuses) and sinusitis. An additional 20% is brought by side effects of medications (like antibiotics or blood pressure medication), chemical or radiation exposure, vitamin deficiency (of vitamin B12 and zinc), brain tumors, and environmental irritants like exposure to insecticides, pollution or cigarette smoke.
Smoking impairs both sense of smell and taste, as reported by medical experts. If you stop smoking now, you can stop smell and taste disorders from progressing and reverse the damage (although it may take a few years to restore smell or taste lost from smoking).
Another 20% of taste and smell complaints are due to head injuries caused by accidents or assault. Although unclear if still caused by aging, some neurological disorders that affect many senior citizens such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s disease are associated with taste and smell problems as well. Other diseases like diabetes, hypertension, mouth cancer and even simple oral health problems like gum disease can affect our sense of smell and taste.
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Between 10-20% percent of these disorders still do not have an identifiable cause to this date. This is why more research is being conducted by several institutions worldwide – both government and private commissioned – so that our generation can further understand the chemosensory system, why there are smell or taste disorders, and how science can help humankind in this area.
Diagnosing Smell and Taste Disorders
For those who can not detect what type of smell or taste disorder they have, they can see a doctor for full diagnosis. Your doctor will first get a complete medical history and a physical examination to find out the cause of the problem
After this, certain tests may be conducted to figure out the level of disorder. For smell disorders, the “scratch and sniff” test can be conducted to assess how well you can identify odors like coffee and chocolate and if there is indeed loss of smell. An endoscope (small camera that can be inserted inside you) may be used to further examine your nasal pathways. X-rays or CT scans may also be required if your doctor needs to take a look at the sinuses and nasal nerves.
Taste disorders may be diagnosed through, you guessed it, a taste test. These tests can measure how well you can detect and compare even the lowest concentration of a chemical. You will be given several samples that target the different taste qualities and flavors.
Treatment will depend on the doctor’s diagnosis. Some taste and smell disorders just go away by itself once your infection or medical condition is treated. Others may require you to take medicines or undergo surgery to remove obstructions such as polyps and other abnormal growths. Some taste and smell disorders, however, cannot be treated
Coping with smell and taste disorders
As mentioned earlier, some cases of smell and taste disorders cannot be cured, but this does not mean it’s the end of one’s life! Since the biggest dilemma of people with permanent taste or smell damage is loss of appetite, there are still ways that you can improve the appeal of food.
Food experts believe that food presentation, colorfulness and texture can add to the appeal of food. Play around with ingredients and experiment on recipes. Not only will you find a way to eat better, you also get to find a new hobby.
Use aromatic herbs and spices to intensify the flavor. For those who only have partial loss of taste or smell, this can make your meals tastier and more palatable. Experts advice that patients with taste or smell disorders avoid complicated dishes and concoctions. If you keep flavors simple, you’re giving your senses an easier time to detect the taste.
Be extra careful, though, of adding too much sugar or salt in your food. Too much of these two can bring about other medical conditions such as hypertension or diabetes. As suggested earlier, use more of spices and herbs to compensate for the lack of taste instead.
Apart from preparing food differently, it is also important to increase your precaution on accidents. Did you know that research shows that people with smell disorders are almost twice as likely to have certain kinds of accidents as compared to people with normal sense of smell?
To prevent food poisoning, always ask another person to check the smell of your food before eating it, especially if you know it’s not freshly cooked. If you live alone, avoid keeping leftovers too long inside the refrigerator. If you can’t help it, make sure you store them in airtight containers and label them with the date when you cooked or purchased them.
Lastly, install smoke alarms or gas detectors in your home to keep you alerted from potential accidents. This is applicable if you live alone and have no one else to detect smoke or gas leaks for you. Better yet, have someone with you all the time to make sure you’re not missing anything.
Having taste and smell problems is both difficult and confusing for people who have them – they may taste things that aren’t there or smell things differently. Suddenly, the things that you enjoyed before may now become repelling. But it is still possible to enjoy life – all you need is to be patient in seeking treatment from an expert and surround yourself with the support of your loved ones.
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