Ah, springtime. The smell of fresh flowers wafting through the air. Bees beginning their annual pollination ritual. Friendly neighbors breaking out the barbecue.
For those who don’t suffer from seasonal allergies, spring is a beautiful break from the harsh reality of winter. But for those who sneeze at the first sign of spring, freshly cut lawns, flowers and pollen mean another round of yearly suffering.
Allergies cause a number of symptoms, including sneezing and congestion. Beyond causing discomfort, these symptoms can also affect your sense of smell, which according to Dr. Charles J. Wysocki, a behavioral neuroscientist, is way more important than you realize.
HellaWella spoke with Dr. Wysocki — who has partnered with Nasacort Allergy 24HR on the Happy Smells campaign — about the ABCs of your olfactory system and why your schnoz and its ability to smell are so important.
What are some common misconceptions about our sense of smell?
A major one is that humans are microsomatic, which means we have a poor sense of smell. That misconception has been around for centuries. But the more we studied it in the 1900s and 2000s, we came around to believe that the sense of smell plays a major role in humans, largely due to its connection with the brain. It has a direct projection to the limbic system, which is in control of mood, emotion, and encoding and decoding memory. This projection from initial processing in the brain to the limbic system is the equivalent to an interstate highway. Other sensory systems can reach the limbic system, but it’s like taking country roads to get there.
For this reason, when memories are elicited using smell, visual or auditory cues, smell hands down wins. Smell-encoded memories are the strongest and most vivid.
What other roles does smell play in our lives?
Smell also plays an important role in warning of us of danger. We’ve known that for a long time in animals, which can smell predators from a long ways away. Warning us of potential danger carries over to the human sense of smell. When people are stressed or emotional, their body odor changes. Other people can detect that and become more anxious and vigilant as a result.
Beyond that, research over last 20 years or so has shown that human body odor has a unique odor print, which can predict an underlying immune system. Does the person I’m smelling have the same genes that I do? If so, it would not result in the best mating for offspring. The baby would receive same immune system from the father and mother. The optimal choice is to mate with someone whose immune system is different from our own. People tend to pay attention to body odors because they provide insight into our genes.
How does aging affect sense of smell?
Beginning for most in their mid-40s, there are changes in the ability to perceive smells. People need stronger concentrations of smell to detect them. There are also changes in how smells are appreciated, especially complex smells like coffee.
I know from personal experience, as I have started to develop seasonal allergies. I was fine until about three years ago. I’m over 60, and I’ve noticed that with advancing age there is deterioration in smell. Lay on top of that the insult of allergies in spring, which worsens matters.
How does smell differ from taste?
When people put something into their mouth there is almost an immediate confusion between taste and smell. People talk about what they’re ingesting as taste, but taste is limited to sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (savory). Everything else comes from other senses, mostly the nose, but we don’t appreciate it.
If you put three different flavor jelly beans in one hand, switch them around and plug your nose with your other hand, then pop one of the beans in your mouth, you will experience texture and taste, but that’s where its stops. If you let go of your nose, you’ll be able to identify what flavor jelly bean you’re eating. Why? Because the air flow through your nose is no longer cut off. It’s very similar to what some people experience when they are suffering from congestion from their allergies.
Does smell differ from person to person?
People have about 450 genes that contribute to molecular receptors on the sensory cells. About one-third are hyper-variable. You won’t find two people who are expressing the same molecular receptors. In other words, no two people have the same smell world. They all experience olfaction in a different way.
How do allergies affect our sense of smell?
Allergies often involve symptoms like congestion, which can inhibit your sense of smell. It’s also like the flu or a cold in that when you eat, food doesn’t taste the same. If you have severe congestion, it can block chemicals that are trying to get to receptor cells. If your congestion is not severe, some might get through but things will still taste different.
What can happen when our sense of smell is impaired?
You may not be able to smell the warning agent in gas. You may eat spoiled food. Also, mothers oftentimes smell their babies, who have a unique smell, especially on top of their head, as a way of recognizing their offspring. If sense of smell is altered or eliminated, that pleasure of interacting with the infant can be reduced or absent.
Smell is also important in social settings when you interact in a group. We can all point to a situation where we wish we weren’t standing next to a person on an elevator or public transportation because of odor.
What are the best treatments available to allergy suffers to restore smell?
Spring is the most fragrant time of the year. Flowers are coming up in the garden and the backyard. Rain showers fall on the hot concrete on the sidewalk. People begin barbecuing. Some people stop using the dryer in favor of putting their clothes up outside on a clothesline. It’s an important time of year to be able to smell clearly, so you can enjoy all of the happy smells of the season.
For people who have or think they may have allergies, I would advise that they speak to their personal physician or allergist about treatment options that are available to alleviate symptoms.
One treatment option is Nasacort Allergy 24HR, which is scent and alcohol free and is available over-the-counter at full prescription strength to help relieve nasal allergy symptoms like congestion, so even the worst allergy sufferer can enjoy the smells of spring. To learn more about Dr. Wysocki and Nasacort Allergy 24HR’s Happy Smells campaign, please visit Nasacort.com.