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Changes in your sense of smell after nasal and sinus cancer

Men and women discussing nasal and sinus cancer

This page is about how nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers can affect your sense of smell. You can find the following information

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Changes in your sense of smell after nasal and sinus cancer

Some types of surgery and radiotherapy to treat nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers will affect your sense of smell. You may lose your sense of smell temporarily or permanently.

Our sense of smell often plays a big part in making us aware of dangers such as smoke from a fire, leaking gas or other chemicals. Food, flowers and perfumes are only a few of many pleasant aromas we enjoy in life. Changes to how well you can smell can be harder to cope with than many people expect.

Your sense of smell is closely linked to your sense of taste. Loss of smell and taste can sometimes lead to loss of appetite and weight because food is no longer as enjoyable to eat. Try to find ways to increase your enjoyment of food again. Try varying textures within one meal. Try hot spicy foods for a sensation on your tongue. It can be difficult to be imaginative but experimenting with what you eat can help you to enjoy eating again.

If you have completely lost your sense of smell it is important that you become very safety conscious, especially when using ovens and fires. Be sure that you have plenty of working smoke alarms throughout your home. Use electricity instead of gas. Always read the labels on bottles of chemicals that you use. Many strong chemicals require that you use them outside or in a very well ventilated room.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the living with nasal cancer section.

 

 

How your sense of smell works

Your sense of smell is part of your chemical sensing system. The term used to describe anything to do with our sense of smell is olfactory. You have sensory cells in your nose, mouth and throat that all help us interpret smells and taste flavours.

Olfactory nerve cells are found high up inside your nose and they connect directly to your brain. Tiny molecules released into the air from substances all around us such as foods, flowers, perfumes etc. stimulate these sensory cells. When any of these molecules reach the olfactory cells, they send a message to your brain, which then interprets what the smell is.

Your sense of smell is closely linked to your sense of taste. We recognise different flavours mainly through our sense of smell. If your olfactory cells are damaged it can be difficult to distinguish between some flavours, such as coffee and oranges.

 

Treatments that can change your sense of smell

Some types of surgery and radiotherapy to treat nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers will damage your olfactory nerve cells and affect your sense of smell.

If you have had your nose packed after surgery, you won’t be able to smell anything. Once the pack is removed it may improve. But it can take up to 3 months or longer for your sense of smell to return. If you had little or no sense of smell before your operation, losing your sense of smell may be permanent.

As well as loss of your sense of smell, the tip of your nose, upper lip and gums may be numb after surgery. The sensation usually returns after a few weeks. But sometimes it can take several months or occasionally be permanent.

Radiotherapy to the nasal cavity or paranasal sinuses may affect how well you can smell.

 

Coping with changes to your sense of smell

We all tend to take our sense of smell for granted. Our sense of smell often plays a big part in making us aware of dangers such as smoke from a fire, leaking gas or other chemicals. Food, flowers and perfumes are only a few of many pleasant aromas we enjoy in life. If your cancer or its treatment changes how well you can smell, it can be harder to cope with than many people expect.

Loss of smell and taste can sometimes lead to loss of appetite and weight because food is no longer as enjoyable to eat. Try to find ways to increase your enjoyment of food again. Try varying textures within one meal. Try hot spicy foods for a sensation on your tongue. It can be difficult to be imaginative but experimenting with what you eat can help you to enjoy eating again. There is more information about loss of appetite and taste changes in the diet problems section.

If you have completely lost your sense of smell it is important that you become very safety conscious, especially when using ovens and fires. Be sure that you have plenty of working smoke alarms throughout your home. Use electricity instead of gas. Always read the labels on bottles of chemicals that you use. Many strong chemicals require that you use them outside or in a very well ventilated room.

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Updated: 26 July 2014