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Overview of Smell and Taste Disorders


Marvin P. Fried

, MD, Montefiore Medical Center, The University Hospital of Albert Einstein College of Medicine

Reviewed/Revised May 2023
Topic Resources

Because disorders of smell and taste are rarely life threatening, they may not receive close medical attention. Yet, these disorders can be frustrating because they can affect the ability to enjoy food and drink and to appreciate pleasant aromas. They can also interfere with the ability to notice potentially harmful chemicals and gases and thus may have serious consequences. Occasionally, impairment of smell and taste is due to a serious disorder, such as a tumor.

Smell and taste are closely linked. The taste buds of the tongue identify taste, and the nerves in the nose identify smell. Both sensations are communicated to the brain, which integrates the information so that flavors can be recognized and appreciated. Some tastes—such as salty, bitter, sweet, and sour—can be recognized without the sense of smell. However, more complex flavors (such as raspberry) require both taste and smell sensations to be recognized.

A partial loss of smell (hyposmia) and complete loss of smell (anosmia) are the most common disorders of smell and taste. Because distinguishing one flavor from another is based largely on smell, people often first notice that their ability to smell is reduced when their food seems tasteless.

How People Sense Flavors

To distinguish most flavors, the brain needs information about both smell and taste. These sensations are communicated to the brain from the nose and mouth. Several areas of the brain integrate the information, enabling people to recognize and appreciate flavors.

A small area on the mucous membrane that lines the nose (the olfactory epithelium) contains specialized nerve cells called smell receptors. These receptors have hairlike projections (cilia) that detect odors. Airborne molecules entering the nasal passage stimulate the cilia, triggering a nerve impulse in nearby nerve fibers. The fibers extend upward through the bone that forms the roof of the nasal cavity (cribriform plate) and connect to enlargements of nerve cells (olfactory bulbs). These bulbs form the cranial nerves of smell (olfactory nerves). The impulse travels through the olfactory bulbs, along the olfactory nerves, to the brain. The brain interprets the impulse as a distinct odor. Also, the area of the brain where memories of odors are stored—the smell and taste center in the middle part of the temporal lobe—is stimulated. The memories enable a person to distinguish and identify many different odors experienced over a lifetime.

Thousands of tiny taste buds cover most of the tongue’s surface. A taste bud contains several types of taste receptors with cilia. Each type detects one of the five basic tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, or savory (also called umami, the taste of monosodium glutamate). These tastes can be detected all over the tongue, but certain areas may be slightly more sensitive for each taste: sweetness at the tip of the tongue, saltiness at the front sides of the tongue, sourness along the sides of the tongue, and bitter sensations in the back one third of the tongue.

Food placed in the mouth stimulates the cilia, triggering a nerve impulse in nearby nerve fibers, which are connected to the cranial nerves of taste (the facial and glossopharyngeal nerves). The impulse travels along these cranial nerves to the brain, which interprets the combination of impulses from the different types of taste receptors as a distinct taste. Sensory information about the food’s smell, taste, texture, and temperature from the smell and taste receptors is processed by the brain to produce a distinct flavor when food enters the mouth and is chewed.

How People Sense Flavors


The Nose

The ability to smell can be affected by changes in the nose, in the nerves leading from the nose to the brain, or in the brain. For example, if nasal passages are stuffed up from a common cold Common Cold The common cold is a viral infection of the lining of the nose, sinuses, and throat. Many different viruses cause colds. Usually, colds are spread when a person's hands come in contact with... read more , the ability to smell may be reduced because odors are prevented from reaching the smell receptors (specialized nerve cells in the mucous membrane lining the nose). Because the ability to smell affects taste, food often does not taste right to people with a cold. Smell receptors can be temporarily damaged by the influenza Influenza (Flu) Influenza (flu) is a viral infection of the lungs and airways with one of the influenza viruses. It causes a fever, runny nose, sore throat, cough, headache, muscle aches (myalgias), and a general... read more (flu) virus. Some people cannot smell or taste for several days or even weeks after a bout of the flu, and rarely, loss of smell or taste becomes permanent. Sudden loss of smell may also be an early symptom of COVID-19 COVID-19 COVID-19 is an acute respiratory illness that can be severe and is caused by the coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2. Symptoms of COVID-19 vary significantly. Two types of tests can be used to diagnose... read more , an acute respiratory illness that can be severe. COVID-19 is caused by a coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. (See Loss of Smell Loss of Smell Anosmia is complete loss of smell. Hyposmia is partial loss of smell. Most people with anosmia can taste salty, sweet, sour, and bitter substances but cannot tell the difference between specific... read more .)

Did You Know?

  • Occasionally, smell and taste disorders are due to a serious disorder, such as a tumor.

  • Because the ability to smell and taste decreases as people age, older people may eat less and become undernourished.

Spotlight on Aging

After age 50, the ability to smell and to taste gradually begins to decrease. The membranes lining the nose become thinner and drier, and the nerves involved in smell deteriorate. Older people can still detect strong odors, but detecting subtle odors is more difficult.

As people age, the number of taste buds also decreases, and those that are left become less sensitive. These changes tend to reduce the ability to taste sweet and salt more than the ability to taste sour and bitter. Thus, some foods start to taste bitter.

Because smell and taste are diminished as people age, many foods taste bland. The mouth tends to be dry more often, further reducing the ability to taste. Also, many older people have a disorder or take medications that contribute to dry mouth. Because of these changes, older people may eat less. Then, they may not get the nutrition they need, and if they already have a disorder, their condition may worsen.

Oversensitivity to smell (hyperosmia) is much less common than loss of smell. Pregnant women commonly become oversensitive to smell. Hyperosmia can also be psychosomatic. People with psychosomatic hyperosmia have no apparent physical disorder. Psychosomatic hyperosmia is more likely to develop in people who have a histrionic personality Histrionic Personality Disorder Histrionic personality disorder is a mental health condition that is characterized by a pervasive pattern of excessive emotionality and attention seeking. People with histrionic personality... read more (characterized by conspicuous seeking of attention with dramatic behavior).

Some disorders can distort the sense of smell, making innocuous odors smell disagreeable (a condition called dysosmia). These disorders include the following:

  • Infections in the sinuses

  • Partial damage to the olfactory nerves

  • Poor dental hygiene

  • Mouth infections

  • Depression

  • Viral hepatitis, which may cause dysosmia that results in nausea triggered by otherwise inoffensive odors

  • Nutritional deficiencies

Seizures originating in the part of the brain where memories of smell are stored—the middle part of the temporal lobe—may produce a brief, false sensation of vivid, unpleasant odors (olfactory hallucinations). These odors are part of the intense feeling that a seizure is about to begin (called an aura) and do not indicate a smell disorder. Brain infections due to herpesviruses (herpes encephalitis) may also cause olfactory hallucinations.


A reduction in the ability to taste (hypogeusia) or loss of taste (ageusia) usually results from conditions that affect the tongue, usually by causing a very dry mouth. Such conditions include Sjögren’s syndrome Sjögren Syndrome Sjögren syndrome is a common autoimmune connective tissue disorder and is characterized by excessive dryness of the eyes, mouth, and other mucous membranes. White blood cells can infiltrate... read more Sjögren Syndrome , heavy smoking (especially pipe smoking), radiation therapy of the head and neck, dehydration, and use of medications (including antihistamines and the antidepressant amitriptyline).

Nutritional deficiencies, such as decreased zinc, copper, and nickel levels, can alter both taste and smell. Sudden loss of taste may be an early symptom of COVID-19 COVID-19 COVID-19 is an acute respiratory illness that can be severe and is caused by the coronavirus named SARS-CoV-2. Symptoms of COVID-19 vary significantly. Two types of tests can be used to diagnose... read more .

In Bell palsy Bell Palsy Bell palsy (a type of facial nerve palsy) is sudden weakness or paralysis of muscles on one side of the face due to malfunction of the 7th cranial nerve (facial nerve). This nerve moves the... read more Bell Palsy (a disorder in which half of the face is paralyzed), the sense of taste is often impaired on the front two thirds of one side of the tongue (the side affected by the palsy). But this loss may not be noticed because taste is normal or increased in the rest of the tongue.

A distortion of taste (dysgeusia) may be caused by inflammation of the gums (gingivitis Gingivitis Gingivitis is a mild form of periodontal disease characterized by inflammation of the gums (gingivae). Gingivitis results most often from inadequate brushing and flossing but may result from... read more Gingivitis ) or by many of the same conditions that result in loss of taste or smell, including depression and seizures. Taste may be distorted by some medications, such as the following:

  • Antibiotics

  • Antiseizure medications

  • Antidepressants

  • Certain chemotherapy medications

  • Diuretics

  • Medications used to treat arthritis

  • Thyroid medications

Taste can be tested using substances that are sweet (sugar), sour (lemon juice), salty (salt), and bitter (aspirin, quinine, or aloes).

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Generic Name Select Brand Names
Elavil, Tryptanol, Vanatrip
No brand name available
Anacin Adult Low Strength, Aspergum, Aspir-Low, Aspirtab , Aspir-Trin , Bayer Advanced Aspirin, Bayer Aspirin, Bayer Aspirin Extra Strength, Bayer Aspirin Plus, Bayer Aspirin Regimen, Bayer Children's Aspirin, Bayer Extra Strength, Bayer Extra Strength Plus, Bayer Genuine Aspirin, Bayer Low Dose Aspirin Regimen, Bayer Womens Aspirin , BeneHealth Aspirin, Bufferin, Bufferin Extra Strength, Bufferin Low Dose, DURLAZA, Easprin , Ecotrin, Ecotrin Low Strength, Genacote, Halfprin, MiniPrin, St. Joseph Adult Low Strength, St. Joseph Aspirin, VAZALORE, Zero Order Release Aspirin, ZORprin
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