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'It has made me a bit paranoid' - what is life like with no sense of smell?

PUBLISHED: 07:38 25 January 2020 | UPDATED: 14:07 29 January 2020

Left, Emma Brennan and, right, Ben Garrod. Both have spoken out about their experiences with anosmia. Photos: Emma Brennan/The Forum

Left, Emma Brennan and, right, Ben Garrod. Both have spoken out about their experiences with anosmia. Photos: Emma Brennan/The Forum

Archant

It's a sense most of us take for granted, but loss of smell affects roughly one in 20 of us. New research from the University of East Anglia says the psychological impact of anosmia are little understood. Ruth Lawes reports.

BBC Science presenter Ben Garrod lost the sense of smell at the age of 10, but has come to terms with it. Picture: Archant ArchiveBBC Science presenter Ben Garrod lost the sense of smell at the age of 10, but has come to terms with it. Picture: Archant Archive

'Life can be really dull'

Emma Brennan lost the sense of smell around one year ago after having a cold. Picture: Emma BrennanEmma Brennan lost the sense of smell around one year ago after having a cold. Picture: Emma Brennan

When Emma Brennan, who lives near Cromer, lost her sense of smell a year ago she said she felt dismissed by her GP.

The 52-year-old was told the condition was not life-threatening and was refused an appointment.

Dr Ben Garrod, evolutionary biologist originally from Great Yarmouth, said anosmia helps with dissections. Picture: DENISE BRADLEYDr Ben Garrod, evolutionary biologist originally from Great Yarmouth, said anosmia helps with dissections. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Ms Brennan said: "I struggled in the first two weeks and was constantly on red alert. I disagree as the condition could be life threatening - I can't smells if there is a gas leak or noxious fumes or tell if food is off. I worry at night time if I am alone in case there is a fire and I'm not able to smell it."

The print editor said the experience has been distressing, and said it can lead to depression in some people.

She said: "Comforting smells are gone, things like freshly-washed bed sheets which make you feel at home. More broadly, losing your smell is like having your head surrounded in cotton wool. Everything is dampened down and the world feels a bit muffled - the colour is missed out.

"Some people joke I must be lucky as I can't smell unpleasant odours such as muck on a field, but I don't ever feel lucky."

Alongside the loss of smell, Ms Brennan's sense of taste has also been impaired and she can now only distinguish between sweet, salty and sour.

She said: "I've lost the sense of flavour, which makes eating really dull. Eating becomes fuel rather than something you enjoy. It can also impact on weight as some people who have anosmia just eat sweet things constantly because they can enjoy the taste."

Ms Brennan said she missed the smells that are most often taken for granted, including Sunday dinner and eggs and bacon.

She added: "The smell I miss the most is walking by the sea and seaside air. But I have found that I now appreciate other things more - my hearing has become more acute for example.

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'I used to get my mum and friends to sniff me'

Ben Garrod, BBC science presenter and professor of evolutionary biology and science engagement at the UEA, said losing his sense of smell at the age of 10 was like a light going off.

Now aged 37, he said he has come to terms with the condition but no longer has any recollection of how things smell.

"I used to really miss the smell of fresh grass when I walked home in the spring," he said. "But I don't know what that is now. The other smell I miss is the smell of my dog as I'd bury my head into him. People often ask me if I miss the smell of my family and the answer to that is no I don't."

It was his teenage years, he said, that proved most difficult.

Mr Garrod, who was born in Great Yarmouth, added: "Going through puberty was awful as everyone would be talking about [body odour] and covering themselves with perfume and aftershave. I had no idea what I smelt like so I used to get my mum and friends to sniff me."

Taste has also been an issue for Mr Garrod, who can go without food for days after losing his appetite.

He said: "It is not intentional but I have to remind myself to eat and if anything I enjoy cooking more. As a scientist I'm quite analytical and it has forced me to be quite creative with recipes. I now respond to food colour and texture."

Anosmia, however, has brought benefits to Mr Garrod's biology career.

He added: "I often have to do dissections and I often see other scientists with pegs on their noses as it can get quite smelly - but it doesn't bother me at all.

"I also lived in the Congo near Uganda for a while for work and I was challenged to try a bit of an orange box chilli. It is extremely hot and after I ate it and had no real effects, the African team couldn't stop talking about it for weeks. It is a party trick."

But Mr Garrod is keen to stress that anosmia can be a difficult and sensitive condition for many.

He said: "I've never had anyone sympathise with me for having the condition. It is always followed by a joke afterwards, like you're lucky for not being able to smell that.

"While it doesn't bother me, it does for some people as it does detract from life. There is a slight lack of awareness around the condition which is why I think the UEA research is so good in terms of understanding."

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