Unable to Savor Your Holiday Meal?

Illustration of a holiday meal with drawings representing taste and smell. (iStock Image)
Illustration of a holiday meal with drawings representing taste and smell. (iStock Image)
Illustration of a holiday meal with drawings representing taste and smell. (iStock Image)

Thanksgiving and other holiday season meals are fast approaching, with many of us looking forward to savoring delicious food together with family and friends.

But more than 2 million Americans have a condition that causes them to experience a loss of their ability to smell or taste.

The Taste and Smell Clinic at UConn Health treats patients with taste and smell problems.

Congestion from a common cold may temporarily interrupt the enjoyment of meals, but other disorders can have a more severe impact on the ability to smell or taste.

Smell disorders can include a total loss of smell (Anosmia), a partial loss of smell (Hyposmia), or perceiving a smell when it’s not present or finding a once-familiar odor strange (Parosmia). Also, taste disorders may include a diminished sense of taste (Hypogeusia), or even a persistent, unusual taste (Dysgeusia).

“Our perception of a smell occurs when substances in the air pass through our nose and stimulate the smell nerve and signal our brain,” says Dr. Denis Lafreniere, an otolaryngologist with the UConn Health Taste and Smell Clinic who is chief of the Division of Otolaryngology at UConn Health and medical director of the UConn Health Medical Group. “We have only four basic tastes we can experience of salty, sweet, sour, and bitter when the taste buds in our mouth respond to food or substances dissolved in our saliva.”

While taste and smell are two separate chemical senses, both contribute to the experience of flavor, Lafreniere notes. Flavor is a combination of smell, taste, spiciness, temperature, and texture. Most of the flavor of food comes from smell, so when you are unable to smell you have lost much of your ability to experience flavor.

Sometimes these two treasured chemical senses of taste and smell may be disrupted temporarily or even permanently. Only about half of taste and smell disorders are treatable.

“Some people are born without a sense of smell, called congenital anosmia,” says Lafreniere, “but the majority of losses or distortions of taste and smell can have many different causes, including nasal disease, exposure to chemicals, upper respiratory infections, head injury, neurological disorders, or even dental problems.”

UConn Health’s Taste and Smell Clinic has a long history of evaluating patients with taste and smell problems. Its team has evaluated and collected data on more than 3,000 people living with taste and smell disorders. It also conducts research to better understand these disorders and develop potential new therapies. The Clinic was founded in 1981 with funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Recommendations from UConn Health for those who may be experiencing a loss of smell and/or taste include:

  • See an otolaryngologist or Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) specialist with experience in treating smell and taste disorders.
  • Try adding more texture or crunchiness to your food.
  • Increase the heat temperature and/or spiciness of your meals.
  • Add color or variety to your meals to make them more visually enjoyable.
  • If you can’t smell, ensure that you have smoke and gas detector safeguards in your home.
  • If you can’t smell spoiled food, pay close attention to the date on any perishable food item so you don’t eat it after it has expired.

For more information or to make an appointment at UConn Health’s Taste and Smell Clinic, visit the Clinic’s website.