The smell of the earth after a summer rain, the aroma of a freshly baked cake or the hint of a delicate perfume usually evokes strong, pleasant feelings and memories. But what happens when these smells make you feel uncomfortable, even nauseous? You might then be diagnosed as a ‘super smeller’, the medical term for it being hyperosmia. “Super smellers are people who have a heightened smell compared to the average person. Some super smellers may be more sensitive to pleasant smells, while others may be more affected by unpleasant odours, especially in the first trimester of pregnancy,” says Dr Aviva Pinto, a fertility specialist with Nova Hospitals, Bangalore.
“The faint aroma of someone’s perfume in line at a supermarket or the whiff of an office mate’s lunch box — seemingly innocuous odours — can be overpowering to a soon-to-be-mom. We all have different combinations of odour-detecting cells in our noses, so people vary greatly in their sensitivity to smells,” she explains, adding, “in fact, when you or I smell the same physical thing, our perceptions may be very different. Disorders of taste and smell have been difficult to diagnose and treat, often because of a lack of knowledge and understanding of these senses.”
Why does hyperosmia happen in pregnancy?
According to Dr Sunitha Lobo, gynaecologist, Fortis Hospital, Bengaluru, “Rising levels of estrogen and human chorionic gonadotropin (HCG) hormone in the first-trimester trigger nausea, vomiting and morning sickness. If a woman is already slightly nauseous, a strong odour may enhance these symptoms.
“However, hyperosmia in women who are not pregnant is relatively rare. So, there’s still much that researchers don’t know about the condition. A person may develop hyperosmia for several reasons besides pregnancy,” she says, explaining that trigger odours for hyperosmia vary from person to person but pregnancy-induced hyperosmia tends to go away after the pregnancy ends and hormone levels return to normal.
“Because olfactory information is sent to different parts of the brain, odours can influence many aspects of our lives, such as memory, mood and emotion. Fragrances have traditionally been used in healing practices across many cultures, including ancient China, India and Egypt. Aromatherapy, for example, aims to use essential oils from flowers, herbs or trees to improve physical and emotional well-being,” says Dr Thomas Chandy, chairman of Hosmat Hospital, Bengaluru.
“An alteration in taste or smell may be a secondary process in various diseases or it may even be the primary symptom,” he adds.
Dr Lobo says that while most medications dull the sense of smell, occasionally a prescription drug may make certain smells stronger. People that experience a change in their sense of smell after starting a new medication should consult their doctor.
In rare cases, type 1 diabetes may cause hyperosmia if it is not well managed. A deficiency in B-12 can seriously impair the nervous system and also impact one’s sense of smell. A person who experiences a change in their sense of smell should take note of any other new symptoms that they are experiencing and consult their doctor if the symptoms are prolonged.
Getting over hyperosmia
Treating hyperosmia depends largely on the cause. In many cases, the best treatment is to avoid smells that cause it. Trigger smells may vary from person to person but can include strong chemical smells and particular foods. When it is not possible to avoid a smell, people may find it helpful to chew peppermint gum or suck on candy until they can move away from the cause of the odour.
A doctor may even prescribe medications to treat the underlying conditions that cause hyperosmia if the symptoms are severe. For example, people who experience migraines might find that medication helps relieve hyperosmia. On the other hand, a doctor may change someone’s prescription if he/she is experiencing hyperosmia as a side effect of a particular medication. Sometimes, surgery is required to remove growths in the skull or nose if they are causing hyperosmia.
“Like most chronic symptoms that do not cause major discomfort, it’s best not to ignore them but get sound medical advice as early as possible,” says Dr Chandy.