Memories, imagination, old sentiments, and associations are more readily reached through the sense of smell than through any other channel.    Oliver Wendell  Holmes

How true that quote is.  After my mother died I treasured a cardigan she had worn that retained her special fragrance. It was a great comfort.  But for many years I  had absolutely no sense of smell. This was due to nasal polyps and inflammation,  related to a  serious  autoimmune condition called  Churg Strauss Syndrome.

The  sense of smell is connected to that of taste,  which meant  I could only distinguish between sweet and sour.  To my frustration, doctors brushed aside my complaints. Why worry about such minor issues when I had  so many other medical  problems?  But my very psyche was affected, not to mention  the   practical issues of being unable to detect a gas leak, or to  smell  smoke!  The medical name for loss of smell is anosmia.  Few people have even heard of this term, which illustrates how little attention the problem receives.

Sometimes I would think that I could taste, totally confusing my partner. ‘That was nice’, I would say after eating a ripe orange. But in reality it was the sight of the fruit and my memory of orange flavour  that  were at work….plus, I suspect,  the imagination of a writer.

Thankfully, a harsh regime of drugs  produced  full remission of my condition, and the return of my two lost senses. I will never, ever take them for granted.  Oh the joy of being able to catch a waft of expensive perfume, and to appreciate the exotic flavours of foreign cuisines.

The pleasure of sampling exotic dishes is denied to those whose sense of taste and smell is damaged.

The pleasure of sampling exotic dishes is denied to those whose sense of taste and smell is damaged.


Nothing provokes the nostalgic response as strongly as the scent of  flowers. After moving to the Blue Mountains from Sydney I can now grow all the plants I knew and loved during my Tasmanian childhood. I inherited an old garden, and my joy in discovering an existing lilac tree was due to an incident that occurred fifty years ago. A playmate  from a neighbouring farm once climbed onto the school bus with her arms full of freshly cut lilac blooms. The memory of that fragrant, dewy bouquet has never left me

I have since established a bed of one of my mother’s favourite plants; Christmas lilies. To me, their scent is as evocative as pine needles and mince pies.

Christmas lilies; a fragrant memorial to my mother Myra.

Christmas lilies; a fragrant memorial to my mother Myra.

I also grow Portwine Magnolia, which smells like juicy fruit chewing gum,  and Blueberry Ash, which has sweet, liquorice scented flowers.

Of  course, it is not only delicate perfumes that arouse nostalgia.  I can  be transported back to my childhood by the sharp  odour  of a sun perished, rubber beach-ball, or the earthy aroma of a farmyard.

I am certainly not the only person to feel the loss of taste and  smell so keenly.

Stacie Hogan from California says;  ‘I have read  that anosmia   doesn’t  bother some people. It bothered me  greatly. I never knew I took smell/taste for granted until I lost it. As someone who enjoys baking it was very upsetting to me not to be able to taste what I was making…and smell was  just as important to me. ….so many memories are associated with our sense of smell. Losing two of my five senses was totally depressing. None of my three sinus surgeries for polyp removal brought it back.’  Stacie is now on a low dose of anti-inflammatory medication, and is reveling in her restored sense of smell.

My English friend and fellow writer Mike White has been unable to retain his taste and smell since undergoing chemotherapy in 2005. He is a connoisseur of wines and told me, ‘I kept hoping I’d be able to enjoy the wine when I opened it, and indeed I could enjoy it to a certain extent, but the pleasure was mostly vicarious. I took to buying cheaper wine, which seemed unfair to Suki [his partner] who’s always had a better palate than mine. We used to go on wine tours, and were planning one to Burgundy this year. I cancelled it, as it was pointless.’

Mike, appreciator of fine wines....when senses allow! (Courtesy of Suki White)

Mike, appreciator of fine wines….when his  senses allow! (Photo Courtesy of Suki White)

Steroids provide  Mike with temporary relief, but these powerful  drugs are not recommended for long term use.   Happily, as spring returned to the UK this year,  so too  did his  sense of smell. Of course  he realizes it may be fleeting;  ‘It’s so good when it returns; an extra dimension. I’m going downstairs right now to smell the hyacinths in the porch.’

There is a reason why we use the phrase ‘stop and smell the roses’ to convey the importance of appreciating life. I hope that physicians  will learn to be more sympathetic to those of us who lose the ability to do so  in a literal sense.

FOOTNOTE…In  the general population the sense of smell and diminishes with age. Smoking hastens and increases the loss.

UPDATE – Since writing this piece I have had some interesting information from  Ripley Patton,  who suffers from intermittent loss of smell and taste.  She told me that she feels fortunate, because her grandfather, father and youngest brother  have congenital anosmia. This  rare gene mutation means they have never been able to taste or smell . Ripley says  she was always able to impress her brother by telling him what was being cooked  for dinner without actually seeing it.  I was amused when she said that although they have never experienced flavours, they don’t understand what they are missing and are quite insulted if anyone mentions the fact.



  1. They say that when writing the writer should appeal to the reader’s sense of smell as it is the most powerful sense in evoking both a response and a memory. Also, I was married to a man who had no sense of smell and the associated taste. Not married to him anymore, but his condition still exists. He was in a car accident and the nerves for that sense were permanently damaged. All he could taste was sweet and sour and salty and bitter. That is it. So an orange would just taste sweet to him and that is all. Kind of sad.

    • Pauline

      Poor fellow Nancy, a much greater loss than people understand.

  2. I know exactly how you feel not having a sense of smell or taste. I too have Churg Strauss Syndrome and also have had polyps removed only for them to return 18 months later! I despair not being able to smell anything and I too have had near misses ” Mum dinners burning” Ooops ! I hate not being able to enjoy my perfume, favorite flower (daffodil) or the smell of my new granddaughter. I w am on steroids and have been now for 1 year but still my senses have not returned. I can but dream.

    • Pauline

      Oh Carol, I do hope you achieve full remission, and that you will be able to enjoy those special fragrances again. Remember there are wonderful FB support groups for CSS, and sometimes other people have advice that can help. My warmest wishes to you.

  3. An interesting subject that, as you said, not many give a thought to unless it affects them or loved one. It wasn’t until my mother lost her sense of taste and smell and complained that everything was bland, that I realised just how important it was. Half the enjoyment of a beautiful rose is its lovely perfume. A delicious meal is first enjoyed by the cooking aroma.

    A friend has recommended a daily dose of zinc so we are investigating that and other natural remedies.

    • Pauline

      I will be most interested to hear whether zinc is of any help, Christine. Do let me know how you get on. And how right you are about the anticipation of food from its aroma!

      • My mother has only just started on the zinc supplements so not sure how long it will take for any results. Perhaps if you google “zinc for loss of taste and smell” you might get some answers.

  4. Fingers crossed I still have my sense of smell. We’ll see what happens when I stop sniffing steroids. Loss of sense of smell can be dangerous – as Carol points out, you can’t smell burning. Or gas.
    Good article, Pauline.

  5. Hello Pauline, last Thursday I lost my 90 year old mother. By the following evening i had lost my sense of smell and taste.I can only assume this may be connected with tear production etc as I don’t have a cold or anything like that – weird !! (missing my Merlot !) Philip in UK

    • Pauline

      Thanks for your comment, Philip. This is really interesting. I know that grief itself can produce strange effects in the body. I do hope this is only temporary. My sincere sympathy on your loss, I still miss my lovely mother dreadfully.

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