Why do we lose the sense of smell when we have a cold?

The cold is one of the most common viral infections of the nose and throat. It can strike you any time, especially when your immune system is at a low. Around 100 rhinoviruses are present that cause over half of the colds you experience. Once you catch them, they can result in a cold, which brings many symptoms, such as nasal stuffiness, sneezing, cough, headache, sore throat, and body aches.

You might be fortunate if you only have a cold. It often comes with flu, which causes even severe symptoms, such as fatigue, weakness, and high fever. While the worst colds typically ease within two to four days, catching it with flu at the same time, would get you sick for about a week.

However, what’s annoying about having a cold and flu is that you also lose your sense of smell, preventing you from savoring the morning breeze and or the chicken soup your Mom prepared to make you feel better. But, have you ever wondered how cold does so?

Olfactory nerves, or the nerves in-charge for detecting smell, are situated at the roof of the nasal cavity, high and deep inside of your nose. Whenever you catch a cold, flu, or sinusitis, it causes inflammation to the mucous membrane of the nose. Remember that our sense of smell dramatically depends on the scented things that reach this lining. When it swells, more mucous is produced, preventing the odorant from making it to the nasal cavity roof.

With that, the ‘smell’ fails to reach the olfactory nerves, they are not stimulated, and no signals are sent to the brain for interpretation. Fortunately, once the cold subsides, the inflammation and the production of excessive mucous ease. Thus, allowing the odorant to reach the olfactory nerves again and why you regain the ability to smell.

But, you might have noticed that your ability to taste also reduces when you get a cold or sinusitis. Truth to be told, your sense of taste is actually healthy when you get sick, but taste dramatically depends on your ability to smell. Your taste buds are not the culprit, blame your stuffed-up and runny nose!

While the loss of smell is usually attributed to having a cold, there are individuals whose inability to smell is not linked to physical blockage of odorants alone. There are instances when bacteria, viruses, and the inflammation damage the olfactory nerves during the condition. It causes direct injury. Often the effects are permanent and irreparable. Luckily, there are also chances for the olfactory center to regenerate. People who experienced damage or injury to their sense of smell may undergo olfactory retraining. You will be tasked to sniff different kinds of essential oils for several months to stimulate your sense of smell.

However, there are also some prolonged inabilities to smell than tend to idiopathic, or of uncertain origin. Some common causes linked to such conditions include rhinitis, nasal polyps, head trauma, sinusitis, or worse, a nose or head tumor.

If in case your sense of smell has decreased, it is imperative to devote the utmost caution as you can easily miss seeing warning signs for fires or leaking gas. Should your inability to smell last a more extended period after a cold, flu, or sinusitis infection, seek help from an ENT specialist for further examination and rules out any other cause of the condition.

Make sure to see a doctor immediately if your smell and taste problems won’t go away, you experience or detect abnormal odor and flavor, or if the loss of the senses are sudden or doesn’t have any apparent cause.

More Readings:

Olfactory System (Wikipedia)

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