If you’ve been reading perfume forums, you’ll have seen the word ‘anosmia’ used casually (a little bit like a sad person might use ‘depressed’ or someone with a headache might use ‘migraine’). There are, of course, specific anosmias (many people can’t smell certain synthetic musks, for example). Total anosmia is a complete loss of smell. Being truly nose-blind.
The scary thing is that it can happen to anyone. A head injury, car accident, bad cold – and your nerves could get so damaged you lose your sense of smell permanently (or worse: get parosmia, where all smells are distorted so that food might taste of excrement and common smells like coffee might make you feel sick, so being in public places suddenly becomes pure torture). Smell and taste are part of the same system – when we eat, the majority of what we think of as taste is actually smell. Aromatic compounds are inhaled through our nose and throat. You can get a glimpse of what eating with no sense of smell feels like if you think back to a time when you had a very bad cold. The loss you experienced temporarily was not complete and that was bad enough to make all the food you ate taste bland.
Why don’t we see sniffer dogs like there are seeing-eye dogs? Why aren’t there TV ads for smell disorder charities? Smell has traditionally been treated by society as banal and unimportant. It has been thought of as ‘animal’ – ergo, not civilised. It has been ignored by governments because if a person loses their sense of smell, they can still work (whereas a blind or a deaf person might not be able to without special help).
Most of us are not really conscious of our sense of smell and even in the perfume communities where people have started thinking about smells more actively, we tend to focus on the hedonistic side of the sense – comparing our impressions and trying to work out what our favourite perfume is made of.
You know that smell they add to gas so humans can detect a leak? An anosmic person would not be made any safer by that. You know how you sniff milk before you pour it into a cup of tea? An anosmic person would not be able to tell if it’s off.
When I was a little girl (6 or 7 years old), I was playing in the second floor bedroom of my friend’s house while her mum was supposed to be watching us. For some inexplicable reason she decided to pop to the shops while we were in her care, and accidentally left a pot boiling on the gas stove.
I suspect that I’ve always been hypersensitive to certain sensory stimuli because there have been many times I’ve smelled or noticed something before anyone around me has. This was luckily one of those times. I smelled smoke and told my playmate about it. She didn’t smell anything and didn’t want to take a look. I insisted, and went downstairs. There was smoke billowing from under the kitchen door. I screamed for my friend and we ran out of the house, leaving the front door open. A neighbour called the fire brigade and took us in.
There are people who are anosmic from birth. Someone with this condition would have been trapped on the second floor of that burning house and may not have made it.
It is said that when we fall in love, we really fall for someone’s smell. Our sense of smell is very important in mate selection. When we kiss, we’re smelling each other. Imagine – what would it be like to never to be able to smell your partner? Your children?
There have been charities and support for other sensory loss for decades. Fifth Sense, a charity for people with smell and taste disorders was founded in 2012 and is working to raise awareness of the impact that such conditions have on people’s quality of life and support further research in this area.
Obviously I think this is very important work – not just because of my profession, but because I think there needs to be more awareness of this issue, and much more help for those affected.
Fifth Sense is running an awareness campaign, and they have declared 27th of February as Anosmia Awareness Day. Basenotes will be participating on the day, The Perfume Society‘s Scented Letter has featured Louise Woollam who lost her sense of smell following a cold (and the Guardian will be interviewing her on the 28th of February).
Fifth Sense Founder Duncan Boak is delivering a talk at the ‘Body and the City’ symposium at Goldsmiths College on 27th February. His talk, entitled ‘Connecting Through Smell’, will focus on how the sense of smell forms a crucial emotive connection to the world around us.
Volunteers are also delivering Anosmia Awareness Day leaflets to doctors’ surgeries.
What can we do?
Please donate (even a small amount) on the Fifth Sense donation page.
Please tweet, InstaGram and Facebook about the Anosmia Awareness Day and what you would miss most if you lost your sense of smell, using the hashtag #LongLostSmell – some of your posts will appear on the Fifth Sense Storify page.
Let’s raise awareness of this important issue!