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Changes in your sense of smell

This page is about how nasal cavity and paranasal sinus cancers can affect your sense of smell and how you can cope.

How your sense of smell works

Our sense of smell is part of a chemical sensing system. Sensory cells called olfactory cells high up in the nose detect smells and they connect directly to the brain. Our sense of smell is closely linked to the sense of taste. We recognise different flavours mainly through our sense of smell.

If the olfactory cells are damaged it can be difficult to tell the difference 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 damage the olfactory nerve cells and affect the 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.

It can take up to 3 months or longer for your sense of smell to come back. If you had little or no sense of smell before your operation, losing your sense of smell might 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 can take our sense of smell for granted. It often plays a big part in how we experience the world. It can also make 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 cancer or its treatment changes how well you can smell, it can be more difficult to cope with than many people expect.

Loss of smell and taste can sometimes lead to loss of appetite and weight because eating is no longer as enjoyable.

You can vary textures within a meal or try spicy foods for a sensation on your tongue. This can help you to enjoy eating again.

Safety issues

If you have lost your sense of smell it is important to be 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.

Information and help