Disruptions in taste and smell have emerged as a Covid-19 symptom. However, these sensory impairments can occur for several reasons other than Covid-19. Sometimes these impairments are temporary and not serious, such as may occur with the common cold or flu. At other times, the causes of loss of smell and taste can be long-term or even permanent. It does not always mean that it is serious. For example, the sense of taste and smell diminishes with age. However, there are instances where the loss of taste and smell may be symptoms of severe and even life-threatening diseases.
Sensory Impairments or The Loss of Smell and Taste
By Pierre Mouchette | Bits-n-Pieces
How Do Taste And Smell Work?
Like all senses, taste and smell are possible through specialized receptors. The olfactory receptors in the nose are stimulated by airborne chemicals that enter the nose. These receptors then send signals to the brain, where it is perceived as odors. Similarly, chemicals that dissolve in the saliva within the mouth stimulate the taste buds. These receptors send signals to the brain, which are perceived as particular tastes.
It is important to remember that smell and taste are linked. Chemicals released during chewing may stimulate the taste buds and the smell receptors in the nose. It can heighten the sense of taste. Therefore when the smell is compromised, taste sensitivity is reduced, and vice versa. Thus a problem with one sense impacts the other, although there may be no concomitant disorder of the other senses.
Different medical terms describe a loss of taste or smell.
Causes of Loss of Taste and Smell
There are various causes of sensory impairments. Losses of taste and smell may be partial or complete. The latter is less common. Sometimes one sense may be diminished while there is a complete loss of the other. For example, the reduced taste can occur with a total loss of smell or vice versa. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention when loss of taste or smell arises. COVID-19 has to be excluded as a possible cause.
Age: The olfactory receptors in the nose and taste buds in the mouth decrease in number as we age. It causes a gradual reduction in taste and smell and is more noticeable in seniors. Sweet and salty flavors are often reported as impaired. The dulling of these senses may not cause any significant disruption, but sometimes other chronic diseases can further compromise smell and taste.
Allergies: These are common causes of loss of smell or taste. The inflammation arises when the body’s immune system overreacts to harmless substances (allergens). The inflammation disrupts the function of the taste and smell receptors. Excessive mucus production in the nose also occurs, which is seen as a runny nose or nasal congestion. It causes an obstruction that limits the interaction between airborne chemicals and smell receptors, thereby diminishing the sense of smell.
Infections: Upper respiratory tract infections are one of the common causes of dulled taste and smell. It is frequently seen with the common cold and seasonal flu. This smell and taste impairment may also occur with a sinus or throat infection. These infections cause inflammation and excessive mucus production, which disrupts smell and taste. Always consult a medical professional if you have symptoms like loss of smell and taste, especially with a fever. Covid-19 infection can cause these symptoms.
Injury: Trauma can disrupt the functioning of smell receptors and taste buds. It may include physical, chemical, or electromagnetic trauma, as may occur with radiation therapy to the head or neck. Even injury to the head without involving the nose or mouth can result in loss of taste or smell. It may be seen with a traumatic head injury which can occur with vehicle accidents, falls, and a blow to the head from any cause.
Medication: Several drugs can affect the senses, like taste and smell. It is usually a side effect which means it is an unintended consequence. It can occur with prescription drugs or over-the-counter (OTC) medication. Among the drugs that can cause the loss of taste and smell, certain antibiotics and anti-hypertensives are common drugs that are known to result in this side effect. However, various other medications may also be responsible, including some antipsychotic drugs.
Neurological: Various neurological disorders can compromise the senses. These diseases may affect the proper functioning of receptors, the nerves that carry signals from receptors to the brain, and the brain centers where sensory impulses are processed. From Alzheimer’s and Bell’s palsy to multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease, the loss of taste and smell may be a symptom of these neurological conditions. It can also occur with dementia. Sensory loss may also occur with diseases like diabetes, where elevated blood glucose levels can damage nerves.
Obstructions: Any obstruction, particularly of the nasal passages, can affect the sense of smell. It may also impair the sense of taste. Mucus congestion in the nose is a common cause seen with injury, infections, and allergies involving the nose. Foreign bodies in the nose (more common with children), nasal polyps, or a deviated septum may also obstruct the nasal passage and impact the sense of smell.
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