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My Battle to Smell Again as a Person With Anosmia

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I have acquired anosmia, a condition which means I have no sense of smell. None. No really, it’s a thing. To help with acquired anosmia, there is something called smell training that helps some people recover their sense of smell. When I started smell training in earnest in 2018, it had been a solid eight years since I became an acquired anosmic.

Most likely you haven’t heard the word anosmia before; it’s a little-known condition that impacts around 3 percent of the population. I became anosmic due to my doctor’s best guess of an upper respiratory infection that damaged my olfactory neurons. I proceeded on a medical journey to figure out what was wrong with me. During that journey, my primary care provider had me try flonase and prednisone, both steroids. I also pursued an MRI and a CT scan to rule out any brain injuries that could be causing my anosmia. Both of those things came back clear.

Finally, I went and consulted with a neurologist who also informed me there was nothing “wrong.” Having ruled out any causes that could possibly be fixed, I was then left alone to deal with my new reality. Having anosmia was strange for me; no one had heard of it before. When I shared my condition with people, their typical reaction was, “are you sure you can’t smell?”

At that point in my life, I made the unconscious decision to ignore my anosmia. No one had heard of it, the doctors couldn’t find anything “wrong” with me and I had no other symptoms. I have a theory that anosmia is not well known because it is invisible. You can’t tell by looking at me that I have no sense of smell. If no one could help me and no one knew anything was wrong, the easiest thing for me at that time was to not focus on it.

Cut to 2018 when my husband and I moved from Idaho to New Jersey to pursue a career for him. I was home and looking for a job. I’m not very good at being bored and I tend to need to be doing something at all times. I decided that if I was going to be home looking for a job, I should start a podcast about having anosmia. There were no podcasts about smell disorders at the time. I’m a big fan of listening to podcasts so this felt like a natural path for me to pursue.

I started the Smell Podcast and by getting more involved with my condition, I had to really start paying attention to it. It’s a lot easier to ignore something that impacts me negatively than it is to deal with it. By paying attention and looking at it, I had to deal with all of the emotions. The impact of anosmia had snuck up on me here and there since it happened in 2009, but I did a masterful job of not giving it any air time because it was so upsetting.

On the Smell Podcast, I interview people like myself who have olfactory disorders. Turns out there are a lot of us. Anosmia is one of a few olfactory disorders, including parosmia, phantosmia and hyposmia. People with all of these conditions have been featured on the podcast.

With my podcast, I started to learn a lot about available resources for people with anosmia, including smell training. Smell training is just what it sounds like — you train your nose to smell things by smelling them. There are four scents that are generally recommended for smell training: clove, eucalyptus, lemon and rose. From what I’ve learned, these scents are arbitrary, but due to the nature of scientific research, they’ve been replicated time and again because that’s how science works. You have to be able to reproduce results.

You take your scents and you spend 30-60 seconds smelling each one in the morning and again at night. Easy, right? Wrong! Smell training is emotionally exhausting. You have to go to your jars of smells each morning and night and visualize the smell you want to smell. Since I have acquired anosmia and I used to have a sense of smell, I have smell memories which are helpful, except now they’re fading with time.

You visualize the item that produces the smell, for example, think of a rose, then think really hard and try to remember how a rose smells. Growing up, my mom planted rose bushes right outside our bedroom window, so I try to think of those specific roses and how delicious they smelled. I would even take the petals at times and smash them in my hand and I can kind of remember how that smells. For lemon, I like to visualize cutting a lemon and the thought of a big pitcher of lemonade also often pops into my brain. For clove, I think of roasted ham on Christmas day and I imagine myself helping cook it and pulling it out of the oven. My mom used to put little cloves into the ham. Eucalyptus is a bit tougher since it’s not an item we typically have in its raw form. I imagine chewing gum that has a eucalyptus scent.

This process repeats itself every day and it serves as a reminder for me of my loss, that I’m missing something and it makes me really sad. Smell training is a battle for me. I know it’s good for me, but I don’t want to do it.

When I started smell training in earnest in 2018, I had competing expectations that it wouldn’t work and that my smell should come back right away. Think about how unrealistic that is. I had been ignoring my sense of smell for eight years, not actively engaging in the act of smelling things at all since I can’t, yet I was frustrated that a few weeks of smell training wasn’t working.

Imagine not using your arm for eight years. It would become atrophied, shrink and shrivel, and not work at all anymore. If after those eight years of not using your arm, you decide that now it’s time to give it a go again, you have to remember it’s not going to work how it used to. You would have to start off small and build your muscles back up. That’s how smell training and the idea of getting my sense of smell back is for me. It feels like this insurmountable mountain I’ll never cross.

In Boise, Idaho, around where I grew up, there is a popular hiking trail called Table Rock. It has an elevation gain of 895 feet and is a 3.7 mile loop. The elevation gain happens pretty quickly and every time I go to hike it, it feels like it’ll never end and I’ll never get to the top. But, I do get to the top every time and that feeling of pride in doing something hard is how I want to approach smell training and my anosmia recovery. To summit Table Rock, you have to start with a step. The same should apply to my battle with smell training. In order to get anywhere, I need to keep taking steps.

Getty image by Jessica Luce.

Learn more about anosmia and other smell disorders on The Smell Podcast.

Originally published: December 11, 2019
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