Anosmia is the inability to perceive smells due to damage to the olfactory pathways (olfactory neuroepithelium, olfactory nerves, rhinencephalon). Olfaction may be tested with kits containing specific odors (e.g., clove, turpentine); each nostril should be separately tested. Unilateral anosmia may be due to pressure on the olfactory bulb or tract (e.g., due to a subfrontal meningioma).

Anosmia may be congenital (e.g., Kallman’s syndrome, hypogonadotrophic hypogonadism, a disorder of neuronal migration) or, much more commonly, acquired. Rhinological disease (allergic rhinitis, coryza) is by far the most common cause; this may also account for the impaired sense of smell in smokers. Head trauma is the most common neurological cause, due to shearing off of the olfactory fibers as they pass through the cribriform plate. Recovery is possible in this situation due to the capacity for neuronal and axonal regeneration within the olfactory pathways. Olfactory dysfunction is also described in Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, possibly as an early phenomenon, due to early pathological involvement of olfactory pathways. Patients with depression may also complain of impaired sense of smell. Loss of olfactory acuity may be a feature of normal ageing.


Finelli PF, Mair RG. Disturbances of taste and smell. In: Bradley WG, Daroff RB, Fenichel GM, Marsden CD (eds.). Neurology in clinicalpractice (3rd edition). Boston: Butterworth Heinemann, 2000: 263-269 Hawkes CH, Shephard BC. Olfactory evoked responses and identification tests in neurological disease. Annals of the New York Academyof Sciences 1998; 855: 608-615


Cross References

Age-related signs; Ageusia; Cacosmia; Dysgeusia; Mirror movements; Parosmia