Understandably, the life-threatening ramifications of sustaining a head injury take precedent in the initial aftermath, and any secondary symptoms are often overlooked. It can take several weeks or more before any subsequent diagnoses are delivered, such as loss of smell and taste.
While it may not seem like a significant condition, losing your sense of smell and taste can be quite distressing, as well as having the potential to cause unusual weight loss and other side effects.
Taste and smell disorders
Our senses of taste and smell are very interconnected, and they actually work together to provide us with our full range of taste sensations. Consequently, it is common for people to report the loss of both when dealing with the side effects of head trauma.
When a brain injury results in damage to the areas of the brain that control our sense of smell, our ability to taste can be significantly impacted, too.
There are differing diagnoses for taste and smell disorders. Smell disorders include:
- Hyposmia – a partial loss of smell
- Anosmia – a total loss of smell
- Dysosmia – a distorted sense of smell
- Hyperosmia – an enhanced sense of smell
- Phantosmia – experiencing false or imaginary smells
While taste disorders include:
- Dysgeusia – a distortion of taste sensation
- Ageusia – a total loss of taste sensation
- Dysgeusia – a persistently strange sense of taste
- Parageusia – experiencing a bad taste
Do all head injuries cause a loss of smell or taste?
No. The likelihood of a loss of smell or taste after sustaining an injury to your brain will depend upon the area of your brain that suffers any damage.
The areas of the brain that primarily control our sense of smell are the orbitofrontal cortex (behind and above our eyes), the insula (beneath our ears), and the piriform cortex (located between the first two).
Other than these, there are some smaller areas of the brain that are also involved in controlling our sense of smell, called olfactory regions. If the bone directly behind the nose (known as the cribriform plate) is significantly damaged, the olfactory nerves that run to the nose could be damaged or severed, leading to a loss of smell.
The impacts of loss of taste or smell
Aside from the understandable frustrations that losing one’s sense of smell and taste can cause, there are other considerations to understand regarding other complications that can arise. These include:
- Loss of weight – no longer being able to taste food in the same way can result in a decreased appetite and significant weight loss.
- Impaired memory – the amygdala, which controls personal memories and emotions, is connected to the olfactory bulb, so, if smell is lost, memories can also be impacted.
- Increased risks such as fire – without a sense of smell, it can be harder for people to detect fire through smelling smoke.
- Mental health issues – losing our ability to smell and taste food can lead to social withdrawal and sadness causing conditions such as depression and anxiety.
Treating loss of taste and smell
Treating the loss of taste and smell after suffering a traumatic brain injury (TBI) depends upon the nature and extent of the injuries sustained, as well as which variations of the disorders you are experiencing.
For example, some cases of Parageusia and Dysgeusia (bad or distorted senses of taste) have been successfully treated with medications like Gabapentin.
It can be harder to treat loss of smell when it results from a head injury, although, if damage to the nasal passages themselves are the cause, it may be more treatable. Otherwise, olfactory training may be effective.
What is Olfactory Training?
Olfactory training is essentially smell training. It is an approach to treating loss of smell by introducing strong scents (such as lemon and eucalyptus) to stimulate the nerves in the olfactory region in the hope of retraining the brain in smell detection. The rate of success for this treatment is relatively low, but some patients do experience improvements.
Living with taste and smell loss
It is a big adjustment to learn to live without your full range of senses, but it is possible and there are some important things to consider, including:
- Texturize your food – to avoid loss of appetite, make your meals more interesting by adding ingredients like nuts, seeds, and other crunchy, textural foods
- Use ice cubes – for some, sucking on an ice cube before eating can help to improve their sense of taste, particularly when it comes to sweeter foods
- Stay on top of expiry dates – it is vital that you check your food regularly and throw out any that have reached their expiry date to avoid poisoning from not being able to detect spoiled food
- Keep your smoke and gas detectors working – ensure that you install and properly maintain all necessary detectors to avoid disaster
- Enhance your flavors – if you aren’t full without the sense of taste, use flavor enhancers to increase the enjoyability of your meals – just be careful not to overdo it on the salt and cause yourself other health issues
Living with a loss of smell and taste is a significant life adjustment that mustn’t be trivialized. Do what you can to explore avenues for appropriate treatments, but otherwise, ensure that you take extra care of your mental and emotional wellness as you manage this change.