Consumer Reports Insights: Age, other factors can harm sense of smell and taste

Monday, December 13, 2010; 6:19 PM

A diminished sense of smell can make it hard to detect gas, smoke or spoiled food. It can impair your sense of taste, too, which depends both on the aromas of food and the sensitivity of your taste buds. And loss of taste poses its own risks, undermining appetite and causing people to add more salt to food, which contributes to high blood pressure.

Such changes are common, research suggests. In one study, nearly a third of the people age 60 and older had an impaired sense of smell. Yet many don't know it, in part because the problem develops slowly. In another study, 85 percent of the people who did poorly on a test that measured their sense of smell thought they still had a sensitive nose.

Age is the main cause of such losses, but a number of strategies can help compensate. And in some cases, an impaired sense of taste or smell can be corrected by addressing an underlying health problem or by changing medications.

Damaged nerve cells

Nerve cells in your nose that govern the sense of smell often come in contact with bacteria, viruses and pollutants that can damage them. Common offenders include allergies, colds and the flu, all of which can temporarily impair your sense of smell and taste and, if the problems are frequent or chronic, permanently damage your nose membranes. Smoking can also interfere with your sense of smell.

The Food and Drug Administration has warned consumers to avoid Zicam nasal products containing zinc. Such items now available in stores don't list zinc as an active ingredient, but throw away any old zinc nasal products you may have in your medicine cabinet.

In some cases, losing the sense of smell or taste can indicate other health issues, so mention the problem to your doctor.

Brain diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's can impair the olfactory system. A loss of smell might be one of the earliest signs of Alzheimer's.

Bell's palsy, a condition that affects the facial nerve, can delay communication between taste buds and the brain.

Nasal polyps - small, noncancerous growths - can block aromas from reaching nerves high up in the nose. Gingivitis and other oral-health problems can cause bad tastes that make eating unpleasant. And depression can also interfere with your senses.

Flavor boosters

If treating an underlying health problem doesn't improve the way foods taste, you may still be able to make eating more enjoyable by following these strategies:

l Add fruit extracts or low-salt herb seasonings to your food. They can bolster flavor perception and counteract perceived bitterness or acidity from some medications.

l Add flavors to complement food: maple syrup or extract for glazed vegetables and yogurt; shredded, pungent cheese or cheese-flavored or garlic seasoning for broccoli, cauliflower and potatoes; and fruit extracts or vanilla for gelatins and fruit-flavored desserts.

l Chew slowly and thoroughly, and consume food while it's hot; both of these steps promote the flow of aromas to the nose.

Medications that can impair your senses

l Drugs for allergies, colds, congestion:chlorpheniramine (Chlor-Trimeton), fluticasone (Flonase), loratadine (Claritin), pseudoephedrine (Sudafed)

l Drugs for anxiety: alprazolam (Xanax), buspirone (BuSpar)

l Drugs for treating asthma: pirbuterol (Maxair)

l Drugs for fighting bacterial infections: ampicillin, azithromycin (Zithromax), ciprofloxacin (Cipro), tetracycline

l Drugs for fungal infections: terbinafine (Lamisil)

l Drugs for high blood pressure and other heart problems: ACE inhibitors such as benazepril (Lotensin), captopril (Capoten) and enalapril (Vasotec); beta-blockers such as betaxolol and propranolol (Inderal); calcium-channel blockers such as diltiazem (Cardizem) and nifedipine (Procardia); nitroglycerin

l Drugs for high cholesterol: atorvastatin (Lipitor), lovastatin (Mevacor), pravastatin (Pravachol)

l Migraine drugs: naratriptan (Amerge), sumatriptan (Imitrex), rizatriptan (Maxalt)

l Drugs for muscle spasms: baclofen (Lioresal), dantrolene (Dantrium)

l Drugs for smoking cessation: nicotine (Nicotrol)

l Drugs for viral infections: oseltamivir (Tamiflu)

(c) Copyright 2010. Consumers Union of United States Inc.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company