This Is What Life Is Like When You Can't Smell Anything

by Katherine Grimm Bowers
Originally Published: 
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First of all, welcome to anosmia — the fancy medical term for the condition of having no sense of smell. Let’s get my story out of the way: Like many people pre-COVID times, I don’t know exactly when I lost my sense of smell. My mother, who also suffers from anosmia, worked out a system when I was a toddler for me to tell her when my little sister’s diapers needed changing (fun), evidence I could smell then, but I know that by the age of ten — after a round of severe allergies and allergy treatments — my lack of sense of smell was profound. I still catch occasional whiffs, but they’re rare and unpredictable. I couldn’t smell the scent of my boyfriend on his sweatshirts, the earthy odors of East Africa, or the scent of chrism on the foreheads of my newly baptized babies.

Whether your loss of sense of smell is temporary or permanent, know you are not alone. Even before the proliferation of post-coronavirus anosmics, we the unsmelling have been a stealthy zombie army in the world, careening through life with a secret handicap. But along the way, I’ve learned a lot about managing life with a nose that is now purely decorative.

Determining freshness with food is much harder. Grow up. Don’t count on being able to smell-test leftovers anymore. Get disciplined about labeling last night’s Styrofoam to-go box with the date, and make sure to keep dairy products deep in the fridge, rather than in the doors, where milk can easily sour with temperature fluctuations. You should have been doing this before, but now that you probably can’t taste food as well, it really only takes one time hitting the chunks at the bottom of a glass of spoiled milk to tighten up your food safety protocols. (Ask me how I know.) These are practices you won’t regret learning even if your ability to smell does return.

Lots of cleaning is dictated by cues from your nose, too. Without being about to detect the mustiness of your jeans, the rankness of your gym shoes, knowing when to clean an item becomes much less straightforward. If you have enough prior experience as a smelling person before your loss, you can fall back on your old systems, but if not, find a guide like this Good Housekeeping article on when different kinds of clothing and fabric need washing. Because I was a kid when I lost my sense of smell and not yet the laundry-processing house elf I’ve since become, I’ve enlisted the nose of a benevolent roommate or my husband on occasion.

When you can’t smell, fire safety is more important than ever. Things I have caught on fire without realizing: loaves of bread I’ve left in the oven, a vacuum cleaner, parmesan rinds. Fire is a problem when you can’t smell smoke — that’s pretty obvious. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked into the kitchen to discover smoke lazily sending out its tendrils from a forgotten, charred pan of brownies. (Sometimes while nearby, my kid blithely bows over his LEGO creation as smoke wreaths his head.) Make sure your smoke detectors are installed properly and their batteries charged. Buy a fire extinguisher if you don’t already have one. Realize you’re taking your life in your hands when you light a candle and wander out of the room. (I just recently learned a normal person can smell a candle from the other room. Thanks, kids, for saving us all.) And for heaven’s sake, get disciplined about using a timer when cooking, and leave it sounding until you’ve actually removed your dish from the oven.


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You’ve probably just shaved a few decades off your flavor preferences. You’ve probably already noticed a dramatic or more subtle loss of taste. Without the nuance smell carries, you’re left to rely on taste buds alone, which offer only limited information about the meals you once enjoyed: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. That information you’re suddenly missing can let quite a lot slip under the radar. (The aforementioned spoiled glass of milk, for starters.) Like a little kid, I gravitate to saltier and sweeter dishes because I can actually taste those — some anosmics crave heat in their meals because it still registers when the subtlety of flavors like cilantro are gone. (Cilantro is neither soapy nor, I suspect, cilantro-y to me. Blindfolded, I might mistake it for salad greens.) Texture takes on a starring role. Keep this preference in mind as you learn to meet your nutritional goals with this new disability.

You might worry that you smell bad. This is an insecurity for me and many anosmics, the sensory equivalent of walking around with a “KICK ME” sign taped to my back, because how would I possibly know? There’s not much to do about this except, if you live with someone, checking in sometimes. (Don’t ask your kids. Maybe mine are particularly cruel, but, when asked — or not — they unfailingly always cheerfully report that I smell bad.)

You don’t have to laugh about it. Although the new prevalence of coronavirus-triggered anosmia may shift the conversation, people’s curiosity and incredulity often draw out a long and draining explanation. Inevitably, they’ll try to make jokes, offering up inanities: “At least you can’t smell public restrooms anymore!” and the like. I get it. Most of the time, it’s just them grasping awkwardly for something to say. But you don’t have to join in. You’ve experienced a real loss, and those same well-meaning people would never try to comfort someone experiencing hearing loss by reminding them how little they’ll miss bearing the full brunt of sirens or off-key renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Don’t let people dismiss anosmia as your new “super power.” (A real thing people say.) You may or may not feel comfortable with the direness of calling this condition a “disability,” but you also don’t have to joke about it if you don’t want to.

Life is more complicated when you can’t smell, but it won’t always be as difficult as when you first develop anosmia. You’ll learn hacks. My sister picks out the scented products I wear. As a new mom, I figured out how to dress my baby so that I could visually check his diaper instead of relying on smelling. Certainly of the five senses, a sense of smell is the one I’d still choose to forfeit, and in the meantime, I’ll be over here, not smelling my coffee.

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