Because of Covid-19, thousands of people around the world have lost their meaning smell, some of them for months. But like so many other symptoms of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, anosmia, or the inability to smell, is not a new phenomenon. Anosmia can be caused by viral infections like the flu, traumatic brain injury, or nasal polyps. Some people are just born senseless. Although often overlooked, odor disorders like anosmia or hyposmia, a reduced ability to smell, are relatively common problems, affecting as many as one in four Americans over 40. Among the elderly, the rate is even higher.
While we often don’t appreciate being able to smell, living without it can be both physical and emotional. Anosmics cannot tell if something is burning on the stove, and because smell and taste are intimately related, they cannot sense complex flavors. Many people with chronic odor loss signal his feelings depression, anxiety and isolation.
WIRED spoke with Duncan Boak, founder of Fifth Sense, a UK-based non-profit organization that has been providing support and information to people with scent disorders since 2012, to find out what it’s like is that of living with anosmia and how it has adapted. (He is also a co-author of the report linking odor loss to depression.)
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
WIRED How was it the first time you realized you couldn’t smell?
Duncan Boak: I had been in the hospital for a week and considered myself lucky to be alive because I had fallen down a staircase to a concrete floor and hit the back of my head. The day I got out of the hospital and came home, I was practicing, “Am I still okay?” Does everything work? It was when I was eating a meal that I said to myself: “This does not taste like anything.” And then I realized I couldn’t smell and my first reaction was, “This is really weird.”
How did you learn about your own condition?
It was 2005 and I did not have internet access at the time. I went to see my family doctor who said, “Oh yes, it’s very rare. I haven’t met anyone this has happened to before, but I have heard that it can happen. We don’t know much about it. We don’t really know much about smell or how it works. He could come back on his own. Give it six months to a year. See if anything changes. Otherwise, you’ll just have to live with it. “No one I spoke to – friends or family – had heard of this either. It sounded a lot like an anomaly. I think the crucial thing for me was, as I know now, I lost. something I didn’t really know I had.
Loss of smell is often considered unimportant or not as serious as other types of sensory loss. How do you explain the impact of the loss of smell on someone who might not understand it?
Imagine lying in your bed on a Sunday morning with your partner and you have the duvet pulled over you. You doze off and it’s the smell of your partner – the skin, the hair, the smell – because we all smell differently. We all have this individual and specific smell. It’s the smell that tells you it’s them next to you and no one else. And think about how important that is in terms of an emotional connection with your partner. So imagine that it was taken away and you were told that you will never get that emotional connection with that person again in this way. How would that feel?