How would you describe the smell of rain to someone who doesn’t smell anything?
Or a new coat of paint? Or the scent of a bouquet of roses?
For Yazmin Salazar, it is the husband who usually describes these smells to her. “It does my nose sometimes,” she says.
“He told me that the smell of honey is vibrant but comforting – similar to the feeling of sunlight on your skin when you dry after a swim.”
Yazmin, 38 and a resident of the city of Phoenix, Arizona, has no sense of smell.
His condition is known as anosmia, which is now in the spotlight for being a recognized symptom of covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, which hundreds of thousands of people are experiencing worldwide.
But for Yazmin, it is something she has lived with since birth.
Risk of depression
Anosmia can significantly affect quality of life.
“It is more than proven that people who lose their sense of smell are more vulnerable to depression,” says Sarah Oakley, executive director of AbScent, a UK-based organization that promotes awareness of anosmia.
This is not a generalized condition. Estimates indicate that about 5% of the world population suffers from the smell disorder.
“The most common causes of anosmia are infections, such as a cold, flu or sinusitis,” explains Oakley.
“Other causes include head trauma, radiation treatment for head and neck cancer, drug abuse and smoking and some neurodegenerative conditions, such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.”
But it is also a condition that can develop with age. “Perhaps even less well known is that our sense of smell deteriorates with age,” she adds.
“It is believed that about 30% of people over 75 are anosmic.”
‘I thought I would learn to smell’
Yazmin realized that something was wrong with her in 2nd grade, while playing in class. She and other children received stickers that smelled when scratched.
Observed by her colleagues, Yazmin took one of them.
“What fragrance did you get?”, A colleague asked him. Yazmin did not know how to respond.
She started to wonder, then, if others had learned to smell things, and if she could do the same.
“I started to imitate many of the reactions of my colleagues and my family,” she says.
“If something was smelly and everyone complained, or something smelled good – I imitated everyone.”
She did this until the 7th grade, when she finally shared her anguish with her mother. “She was surprised and immediately took me to the doctor, but he just asked me to continue my life and take some extra care,” she recalls.
“The term anosmia did not come up during our conversation,” he adds.
Over the years, she began to adapt to life with only four senses.
Yazmin says he started to tell his closest people about his condition, so he would know if he needed to use a deodorant, for example. Or if the leftover food had already spoiled.
But it didn’t always work. “I was never able to tell whether I smell good or bad and, therefore, I have had several embarrassing experiences, especially at work,” she says.
“Like when I forgot to use deodorant and my colleague noticed.”
She now carries a “hygiene kit” with all her essentials.
Sarah Oakley of AbScent saw similar situations happen to other people with anosmia: “One of our members described not being able to smell her body odor as ‘looking in the mirror and not seeing her reflection’.”
‘I lied to everyone and to myself for years’
Rakesh Kamal, who lives in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad, also suffers from congenital anosmia and has never had a sense of smell.
He says he believes the condition may be genetic in his case. “My grandfather was also facing the same problems, but he never talked about it.”
Rakesh has installed a smoke and gas detector in his home and is no longer moving away from the stove when preparing food.
“We almost had an accident because my wife was sleeping and I couldn’t smell burning in the kitchen,” he says.
“It was only when the smoke hit the hall that I realized that a major tragedy could have occurred.”
Like Yazmin, he kept his condition a secret for years. “The first person I told was my partner, and I was 21 at the time,” he recalls.
“All these years, I lied to my parents, friends and even myself, because I thought that no one would believe me – it is a condition that no one talks about.”
But since anosmia became an issue during the pandemic, Rakesh has been talking about his condition publicly, to promote greater awareness.
“As we grow up, we learn about people who can’t see or hear, but nobody talks about people who can’t smell,” he says.
“We can start by introducing the word ‘anosmia’ to our children.”
‘The thought of losing my sense of smell made me panic’
For some people, like chef Joshna Maharaj from Toronto, Canada, loss of smell can be a gradual process.
In her case, the triggering factor was an extreme sinusitis that caused the formation of polyps – non-cancerous growths linked to chronic inflammation – in her nasal passage.
At first, she started burning food in the kitchen without realizing it. Soon, I couldn’t smell the meat smoker at the steakhouse.
“Losing my sense of smell made me panic – especially for the professional implications of it – to the point that I disconnected from everything,” she says.
She became extremely careful, using kitchen timers for everything, in the event that she couldn’t count on her nose.
Earlier this year, she published a post on Instagram, revealing her condition and announcing that she had started training to try to regain her sense of smell.
Research indicates that this type of training may not mean curing anosmia, but it can improve the patient’s chances of recovery by stimulating the olfactory nerves, which transmit the sense of smell to the central nervous system.
‘The current focus on anosmia brings a ray of hope’
It was a particularly bad day in 2016 that led Yazmin to start documenting his experiences on his blog ‘The Girl Who Can’t Smell’.
“Whenever I made a mistake related to the smell, my heart was heavy. But then I decided to change my mindset and raise awareness.”
“I thought it could help at least one person to feel a little less alone in their condition.”
Yazmin learned to use humor to describe embarrassing situations and animated characters to give tips on how to deal with anosmia.
“The current focus on the condition due to the pandemic is a silver lining,” she says. “It is a relief to know that the public is more informed about this.”
ABScent’s Oakley agrees.
“There is still much more to understand about anosmia”, he says.
“We just hope that current levels of interest in the condition will translate into funded research projects,” he adds.
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