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Loss of smell almost doubles chance of accident

March 15, 2004

People who have total or partial loss of the sense of smell are almost twice as likely to have some kinds of accidents or incidents than people who have normal smell (or olfactory) function. According to the results of a study at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center that appear in the March issue of Archives of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery. Researchers reviewed medical records for the past twenty years and discovered that there were several important danger areas:

  • cooking-related accidents
  • exposure to an undetected fire or gas* leak
  • eating or drinking spoiled foods or toxic substances by individuals with this sensory impairment

The most frequently reported incidents were cooking related (47%) followed by eating or drinking spoiled or toxic substances (25%), undetected gas leaks (23%), or fires (7%). Most people who have smell loss or impairment do not realize it. Loss of smell is caused by damage to the delicate olfactory nerves at the base of the brain or when other smell receptor sites become damaged. Head trauma, chronic sinusitis, viral infections, nasal obstructions, some medications, and even aging can cause this loss. In many cases, olfactory function never returns. Sometimes, the sense of smell returns, but signals going to the brain may be altered. These alterations may cause distortions and make pleasant, familiar smells become odd or extremely unpleasant. Olfactory loss also affects the ability to enjoy food, which can have a negative effect on nutrition.

* Gas is odorless, but the gas company adds a warning "rotten-egg" smell (mercaptan or a similar sulfur-based compound) that can be easily detected by most people.


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