When my sense of smell began to fade I knew why. I had been bold enough to tempt fate years before. Once, a long time ago, before I knew anything, I played a game with a friend. We were imagining things we thought would never happen. I asked, “If you had to lose a sense, which would you choose?”
I’m older now and I know not to ask dumb questions like that. Ask enough questions and life will start throwing curve balls at you. But then I wasn’t afraid to tempt fate and chose sense of smell. So, now, years later, when my sense of smell is starting to fail me, I know why. It’s because I asked for it all those years ago.
But First, What’s That I Smell?
My sense of smell started going years ago after I had surgery to remove a small brain tumor in my right temporal lobe. A few years after the surgery, I started smelling something that wasn’t there. I was smelling ammonia when there was no ammonia around me.
After talking to a few doctors, my neurologist explained that what I was experiencing was an olfactory hallucination (phantosmia) . Like other hallucinations, it happens when the brain perceives something that isn’t there. Her thought was that it was a type of seizure occurring in the temporal lobe where I had scar tissue after my brain tumor was removed.
Through my own research, I discovered that tthe temporal lobe contains a large area of the olfactory cortex. It’s here that an area called the uncinate gyrus, or uncus lives. This is where seizures likely begin for those who have temporal lobe seizures, which I had before I had my brain tumor removed.
Because they begin at an area connected to smell, the phantom perception of scent is only one other bizarre symptom of some seizures starting in this spot. Though I never had this sense when I had my original seizures, my brain has not forgotten what took place there and continues to repay me for my little childhood game.
People who have seizures here smell things that are much worse than ammonia. This experience of smelling phantom unpleasant smells is known as cacosmia. I sometimes smell cigarette smoke, but others smell thinks that are burning, spoiled, or rotting.
I have noticed other changes in my sense of smell. I am no longer able to smell garlic as I once did. It often smells rancid to me and I notice when I am cooking it, that I often end up burning it because I can’t distinguish the smell of when it is done. Because taste and smell are tied together it sometimes tastes as rancid as it smells.
This distortion of smell is sensation is known as parosmia. It occurs when your olfactory senses have been damaged. It can happen after a cold, when these neurons in your nose have trouble understanding how to interpret the chemical information of a smell. But other damage, from traumatic brain injury, and seizures, can also lead to damage.
Learning What I Should Have Known Then
I now know so much more about the sense of smell than I did when I was ready to throw it away as a child. Thankfully, the things we say without thinking usually don’t really hurt us. Having lost even a small part of my sense of smell has made even more thankful for it and all of my senses.
Recently, I read an article that quantified how important this sense is. Losing a sense of smell greatly impacts the mental and emotional well-being of people who lose it. It may be minimized by others, and many had trouble receiving help. They felt isolated, resulted in anger, anxiety, frustration, depression, isolation, loss of confidence, regret and sadness.
Researchers are hoping my studying this loss, they can help those facing this loss.
Originally published at https://catherinelanser.com on January 23, 2020.