If you’re concerned that your sniffer isn’t performing quite up to snuff, be sure to mention this to your doctor. Loss of smell (anosmia) can have a variety of causes, ranging from a common cold or the use of certain medications to a serious underlying medical condition, such as Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease.

Your doctor should get a complete medical history to help determine what’s causing your loss of smell and administer a smell test to assess the function of your olfactory system.

If no underlying medical condition is detected, consider trying “olfactory training” (aka smell training). Some research suggests that practice may improve one’s sense of smell—something that’s closely tied to one’s sense of taste and overall life satisfaction. After all, who doesn’t enjoy smelling a fresh pot of brewed coffee or a lovely bouquet of gardenias?

Research finding: When 40 study participants with anosmia due to a severe upper-respiratory tract infection, head trauma or unknown cause, were asked to smell four odors (rose, eucalyptus, lemon and clove) for 10 seconds each in the morning and evening for 12 weeks, olfactory function for 30% of them improved while those who did not train reported no change, according to research published in The Laryngoscope.

Smell training doesn’t guarantee that your sense of smell will improve. It is most likely to help accelerate the recovery of your olfactory function following a viral infection, such as a cold or the flu—both of which can temporarily damage olfactory receptor cells in the nasal cavity. 

A simple way to try smell training: Place four bottles of spices (such as clove, mint or cinnamon) and/or extracts (such as vanilla, lemon or maple) next to your bed. Sniff each one first thing in the morning and before going to bed three or four times. Before changing scents, take a few “cleansing” sniffs. Every few days, write down whether you can accurately identify each scent and the potency of the aroma (based on a scale of 1 to 5). If your sense of smell is going to improve with practice, it will typically occur within a few months.

Another practice to follow: Because such illnesses frequently cause loss of smell, take steps to prevent illness in the first place by practicing good hand hygiene—wash your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water (or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if water is not available) before, during and after preparing foods…before eating…after using the toilet…after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing…after caring for someone who is sick…and after touching an animal.

This is one of the simplest ways to protect your sniffer!

Source: Richard L. Doty, PhD, FAAN, director, Smell and Taste Center, and professor of psychology in otorhinolaryngology: head and neck surgery, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. He is an internationally recognized expert in taste and smell dysfunction and author, coauthor or editor of several books, including The Great Pheromone Myth and Smell and Taste Disorders.