Anosmia journal: my excursion into an aroma-free existence

Anosmia  (a-NAHZ-mee-ah), n.  The loss of the sense of smell, either total or partial. It may be caused by head injury, infection, or blockage of the nose.

Or, I might add, by flat-out carelessness.

It’s now two weeks since I sent all of my olfactory cells to the hereafter with one shot of nasal saline rinse that I accidentally mixed with white vinegar rather than distilled water.

Despite the fact that some of my former guilty pleasures (such as candy corn) now bring about as much pleasure as chewing on wallpaper paste, I find that old habits die hard, hope springs eternal, and whatever other cliches you’d like to throw at the situation. In other words, I keep trying, hoping some maverick molecule of vanilla or cinnamon or curry will find its way to that one cell that somehow, miraculously, managed to escape annihiliation.

It’s no use. I can’t taste a thing.

I can’t taste a thing because I can’t smell a thing. And I can’t smell a thing because, apparently, white vinegar is not a substance that most people would recommend shooting straight up your nose. It’s hard for me to know for certain, because with all the research I’ve done in the past two weeks, I haven’t found a single reference to anyone else ever having doing so, whether accidentally or on purpose. I seem to represent a medical first in that regard. Just remember you read it here first.

But I am learning, slowly, that without the glorious symphony of aromas and flavors that used to greet me with every whiff, every bite, pretty much all I can taste now are vague suggestions of general taste categories, such as mildly sweet, salty, spicy, acrid and so on. So there isn’t much point in overindulging these days. A nice bowl of plain oatmeal will suit me just fine if all I want is to stop my stomach from growling.

And it’s been kind of nice, when I see friends and family members chucking down some calorie-laden slice of pizza or chocolate cake, to know that the only benefit I will get from eating it is further expansion of my waistline. It’s not too hard to pass them by under those conditions.

I think there’s a lot of money to be made by some enterprising chemist who can figure out how to fool the olfactory cells, to throw them off the scent if you will, without causing permanent damage. We’d never again need to consider such drastic diet options as addictive pill regimens, gastric bypass surgery, stomach stapling, liposuction or (most drastic of all) exercise and sheer willpower. Just think how easy it would be if you could buy this product in a squeeze bottle at your local pharmacy.

Got your eye on a sizzling plateful of rib-eye steak? One sniff and your temptations are over.

Made it through all day on vegetable soup and fruit, and now your spouse is baking cream cheese brownies in the oven? Sniff. They’re gone!

The beauty of such a product would be that you yourself could choose when to use it, and when you’d really prefer to savor the smells and let the chips fall where they may.

Because I’ll be perfectly honest with you: I would be sad if my sense of smell never came back. If I could never again inhale the richness and sweetness and spiciness that life offers up to the nose, I would feel as if a part of myself were gone. The sense of smell is one of the most powerful conjurers of memory. The aroma of turkey roasting in the oven evokes countless warm family holidays. The briefest whiff of diesel takes me back to my grandparents’ apartment in Washington, D.C., where the bus stopped every morning. Many people dislike the smell of diesel; to me it is heaven because it reminds me of them.

On the other hand, I don’t miss the constant sabotage and betrayal my keen sense of smell used to put me through constantly. I like being able to develop a sensible food plan for the day and not being thrown off track by someone else’s delightful meal.

So I’m hoping my sense of smell kind of takes a while in coming back.

Say, about 30 pounds’ worth or so.

Stay tuned. I’ll keep you posted as things progress.



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11 responses to “Anosmia journal: my excursion into an aroma-free existence

  1. Linda

    Bittersweet (no pun intended)


  2. Lisa

    Aaaaaargh! The nose knows? According to your story, it’s clueless for now. I cherish olfactory memory. Even so, assuming the non-scents problem to be temporary, I could use a whiff of willpower.


  3. Sabrina

    Okay, I apparently stored some white vinegar in a empty gallon water jug. Then without knowing that, I used it for my nasal rinse and it burned (burns!) like hell. OMG! I googled “accidentally used vinegar in nasal rinse” and your blog came up. Please tell me this has a happy ending!


    • Sabrina, I’m so sorry to hear that this has happened to you. I empathize.

      Hang in there. The physical agony will slowly subside over the next several hours. After that, the research I’ve been able to unearth is pretty inconclusive. You may notice that everything is back to normal after a day or so. You may notice some slight loss of smell. Or, like me, you may experience a total loss of smell … and it could be temporary, or it could be could be permanent. It seems to vary quite a lot from person to person. For me, the absence of a sense of smell has been absolute in the 10 months since my vinegar incident occurred. I have the vaguest sensation of some sort of chemical that is apparently an ingredient in a lot of things, like sunscreen and lip balm. It has a synthetic smell, but I can’t identify it. For all I know, it could even be a “phantom smell” — the result of the olfactory sensors in my brain doing their level best to detect and decipher smells in the absence of any input from my decimated nasal epithelium.

      You ask if there is a happy ending. I wish I could promise you that, but the reality is considerably more nuanced. The all-encompassing anosmia I have experienced has been both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing every time I stand near someone who smokes or has poor hygiene. It’s a blessing whenever a skunk strolls through my back yard or the river backs up with sewage. It’s a curse when the flowers are in bloom, or when cookies are baking. I no longer awaken to the special sweetness of an early summer morning.

      My sense of taste has been affected, as well. At present, I am able to distinguish salty from sweet, sour from mild. But I no longer experience the symphony of flavors in a well-seasoned cuisine. Devil’s food cake is virtually identical in taste to angel food cake (though different in texture). Commercial peanut butter tastes like sweetened wallpaper paste. A good Cabernet still goes down smooth and warm, but I can no longer savor the subtle woodsy overtones. I miss those things. They were part of the poetry of being alive and human in a world rich with flavors and fragrances.

      This is not the happy ending you hoped for, I know. Your experience may very well be quite different from mine. I hope it works out better for you. But if nothing else, I hope it helps to know you have a fellow traveler to navigate this uncharted territory. Do please keep me posted, won’t you? Let me know how things are going. And know that I am wishing you the best possible outcome.



  4. Sabrina

    So sorry to hear you still have not recovered your sense of smell. I can’t imagine going that long without being able to use that particular sense though I do see how sometimes it could be a blessing.

    This morning I still feel a little burning sensation and my nose seems to be working overtime to flush itself out. I washed my rinse bottle out good and tried to do a rinse with saline solution but apparently my bottle was not rinsed well enough and/or the saline solution was just reactivating the vinegar that still remained…I’m guessing a combination of both these things…this morning I could smell the vinegar in/on my rinse bottle so I’m sure that was still a factor.

    I have another bottle and am still tempted to try to do a rinse to help flush it all out but I’m nervous that I will be just making it worse so for the time being I guess I’ll just let my nose do its thing. I don’t think I really got it into my sinuses or at least not much…seems to be mostly just inside my nostrils. I feel sooo stupid though. I seriously do not remember putting vinegar into that water jug but it definitely smells like vinegar. I am really kicking myself.

    This occurred last night, and the night before I had a little incident with a wasp headed for my face and in trying to get away I tripped over myself and sprawled out on the driveway. After two rough nights in a row, I’m a little afraid to even leave my bed today!

    Thank you so much for sharing your experience and I hope things improve for you as well!


  5. Deborah

    I’m sorry – I’m laughing as I’m sympathizing. You’re funny, Ann.

    I hope you and Sabrina’s noses have recovered by now, two years later.


  6. Jacci

    Fast forward to 12/2016. Imagine my relief at finding this post when I thought I was the only one. Yesterday in my hurry I accidentally grabbed the vinegar instead of the distilled water and took a big inhale through my sinus rinse bottle. Swollen eye and inside of the nose all on the left side. I fear I may have done permanent damage. It also brought on a lot of congestion. How are you all faring? Did either of you see a doctor? Woe is me, but I’m glad to have company.


    • Hi, Jacci. Sorry to hear that you’ve joined our unlucky crew, but I’m glad you were able to find us. To answer your question, no, I never saw a doctor for reasons too numerous and complicated to go into. The short version is that I saw no point, I knew the damage was done the minute I did it, I knew I wasn’t in any imminent danger, everyone in the house was asleep and I didn’t feel like waking them. Stuff like that. In the past few years, I have regained a minimal amount of my olfactory faculties, but nothing close to what I had before. The good news: There’s a family of skunks living somewhere in our neighborhood, and I’m the only one who can’t smell them. Keep me posted with your progress, won’t you?


  7. Jacci

    Thanks for your reply. 24 hours made a big difference with the swelling and irritation. My sense of smell, though not sharp,
    ( obviously or I might have noticed the vinegar!) seems much the same. We truly have a unique club here!


  8. Julie

    Dear Ann,
    Like Sabrina & Jacci, I too am very grateful to you for taking the time to post this blog. I wish I could say that I’m the one joining this undesirable club and carelessly burned my own nasal membranes. However, gut-wrenchingly, I did this to my two children, ages 11 and 13. Our entire family of four has been fighting off this this “10 day cold” going around, with the primary syptom being nasal/sinus congestion. I’ve been so proud of my kiddos for doing sinus rinses 2x/day, and finally seeing this start to clear up. While doing the now familiar nightly ritual of preparing four sinus rinse bottles, using the McNeil pre-mixed packets, I was also coordinating sleep-over and birthday party plans for tomorrow via texts. In my distracted state, I poured white vinegar instead of distilled water into the measuring cup that I use to warm the water. I had used vinegar earlier in the day for cleaning. My husband took the bottles upstairs to our kids and moments later, my daughter screamed that I scaulded her nose. I felt terrible thinking I overheated the water, but my husband checked the temp of my son’s bottle & said it felt fine & handed it to him. Seconds later, his shreek of pain. I can’t believe I did this! If I wasn’t so stuffed up myself, I’m sure that I would have smelled it while preparing the caustic mixture. We quickly rises their noses with several rounds of saline mixture, but my son’s sinuses, especially on the assaulted side are really congested now. He also felt like it burned around his eyes. It was especially scary because he is epileptic. His seizures are well controlled with mess, but the stress on his face resembled how he has looked before an episode. After getting them calmed down and to sleep, I found your blog after poring through many links describing the beneficial effects of apple cider vinegar rinses (extremely diluted- of course). I’m so worried about them, I can’t sleep and keep going upstairs to check on them. I have no clue what olfactory (or more) damage I’ve done. Just hoping they get a decent night of sleep so their poor noses start to heal. Will try to update later. Thank you ladies for sharing your stories. It makes me feel a bit better knowing you all survived and also didn’t go to the ER.
    Sincerely, Julie- worst mom ever


    • Hi, Julie. I feel terrible for all of you. My heart goes out to you especially; as a mother I know the special burden when we feel we have inadvertently harmed our children. My youngest daughter broke her pinkie when she was three years old, and it wasn’t until years later, when I noticed the finger getting more and more crooked, that I asked the doctor to take a look. It had to be rebroken and set. I have discussed this frequently with her, and it’s clear that I was far more traumatized than she was. She actually thinks it’s pretty funny, whereas I don’t think I ever will. All of this is my way of saying you are not the worst mom ever. Far from it. You were trying to help your children, and you made an honest and completely understandable mistake.

      Your children are still young, and their bodies are hard at work building new cells, so I will be interested to hear how they recover over the long term. As for me, I am middle-aged, so my systems are beginning the slow winding-down process. I have never fully regained my sense of smell, but I can detect some chemicals and synthetic odors. I still miss the scent of a warm, humid summer morning. On the other hand, at work I come in contact with heavy smokers, and it’s kind of nice not being able to smell that. And I alone am able to breathe freely when the family of skunks in my neighborhood goes parading across my lawn on quiet evenings.

      Do keep me posted. And take it easy on yourself. I’m sure your kids will tell you you’re a terrific mom.


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