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Chrissi Kelly, 56, lost her sense of smell in 2012, a condition called anosmia. She is a charity worker who has two grown-up children and lives with her husband Thomas, near Winchester in Hampshire
‘Losing my sense of smell was shocking. I woke up one mid-summer morning and it had gone: I could not smell a single thing. I rushed around my bathroom opening every bottle – from shampoo to loo cleaner – trying to detect something.
My GP blamed it on a head cold I had. He told me it was common, there was no cure and advised, ‘Learn to live with it’, adding, ‘Isn’t it lucky you didn’t lose your sight?’
I’ve since learnt that this sums up the approach of most doctors – little is understood about anosmia. We do know, however, that losing your sense of smell can be a precursor to neurological conditions such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Disease; but these were not considered in my case as I was young and had that stinking head cold, which my GP still believes accounted for my sensory loss.
Not having any sense of smell was just awful. I couldn’t make sense of the world without smells in it. That may sound odd or dramatic but others tell of similar feelings. We don’t realise how essential our sense of smell is until it is gone.
For me, it felt like living in a world without gravity – I was floating above it, and isolated from others who were able to use all their senses to experience life. I was denied the joy of smelling freshly cooked food, and stopped wanting to go out. Worse still, I couldn’t make out my children’s unique natural scents.
Taste and smell are linked: together, they create the sensation of flavour. So I could still taste if something was sweet, salty or bitter, for example, but couldn’t experience a combined flavour.
Initially I thought it might return at any point, but after six months, I became depressed. When your brain doesn’t get any olfactory stimulus, it seems to have a numbing effect – similar to the low moods caused by Seasonal Affective Disorder (when the brain doesn’t get enough stimulation from light).
I saw an Ear Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist who warned I was probably suffering nerve damage in my nose. He gave me steroids to reduce inflammation but they made no difference.
The following year I was fortunately referred to an ENT consultant called Carl Philpott, an expert in anosmia, and after six months following his programme of sinus rinses and medication for rhinitis, I was able at last to detect a few faint smells. He suggested I try something new called smell training.
Every day, I had to sniff four tiny bottles that contained strong essential oils, as often as I could. It is not known exactly how or why, but scientists believe doing this may help to build new neural pathways, using the brain’s natural plasticity. You have to be mindful to make the practice work; I learned to concentrate on the smell and think what it is called, and how I would describe it.
Then, from Fifth Sense, a charity dedicated to anosmia, I learned about a perfumer’s course in London, called Design with Scents, which I went on last summer (subs 2014) . Spending all day every day sniffing seemed to stimulate my brain, and by the end of the week, I was able to recognise different constituent parts in fragrances. At a wine tasting on the last day, the white wine smelled and tasted real to me. It was a lightbulb moment.
But identifying perfume ingredients wasn’t enough. I wanted to regain the smell of earth, dogs coming in the house, even gas escaping from the stove; I wanted to be reacquainted with all the smells in the world.
I realised I needed to build a scent library. Research online led to me finding a set of scents used by the drinks industry to help wine “noses” detect specific flavours, so I sent off for it. Gradually, through repeated exposure, I began to detect a couple of the fouler sulphur-based smells, like rotten egg, cauliflower and garlic.
My sense of taste seems to be gradually improving, too, but I have found my preferences have changed. I like white fish now more than I did, and I think that is partly due to its texture, which I appreciate more.
I now work on eight smells at a time, stored on cotton pads in small 30mg jars. I use essential oils from the pharmacy, and spices from the kitchen cabinet. After 18 months’ training, my world is starting to have a familiar smell again.
One fear was whether I could recover that jolt of recognition some smells bring. Happily, I was wrong; late last year, I smelled a pungent foot cream and realised it reminded me of caring for my elderly father. It was not a pleasant smell, but I was grateful nonetheless.’
What is anosmia?
* Anosmia is the loss of the sense of smell, either total or partial; it is believed 6,000 Britons suffer from birth, but about 600,000 are affected by adult-onset anosmia, and according to the NHS, it gets more common after 50
* The causes range from head trauma, nasal/sinus disease, upper respiratory viral infections, and Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Diseases. In 25% of cases, the cause is unknown
* Famous sufferers include singer Michael Hutchence, William Wordsworth and actor Bill Pullman, although it seems to affect women and men equally
* Loss of smell does not destroy your sense of taste entirely. Anosmics can make out individual tastes like sweet or sour, but the brain can’t process those tastes into a full flavour without the input from the sense of smell
* There are five specialist clinics around the UK to which you can be referred: James Paget University Hospital, Great Yarmouth; Royal Surrey County Hospital, Guildford; Freeman Hospital, Newcastle; Queen Elizabeth Hospital, Birmingham; Guys Hospital, London
*For more information, visit: fifthsense.org.uk