Allergy, Nose & Sinus

Why can’t I smell or taste well during a cold or sinus infection?

February 10, 2020
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Smell or olfaction, is one of the five human senses that is often overlooked. It plays an important role in the appreciation of food flavors and pleasant odorants (e.g. perfumes and flowers), detection of potential hazardous situations or materials (e.g.  fire smoke and spoiled food) and is integral in a person’s daily social interactions and awareness of  his or her surroundings. In this short blog,  Dr Gan explains why we can’t smell when we have a cold and discuss some of the common causes of loss of smell and taste, an area that is often neglected not only by patients but also by some Family Physicians and Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT) Specialists.



Figure 1– The location of the olfactory nerves in the nose. When smell is detected by the olfactory nerves, the smell information is carried by signals that are transmitted by the olfactory bulb and olfactory tract to the brain.



Most of us has had a cold, flu or sinus infection (sinusitis) at some point in our lives (some more frequent than others). During these episodes, sometimes we would have experienced a temporary reduction or a total loss of our sense of smell and taste. The nerves responsible for detecting smell (also called the olfactory nerves) are located at the roof of the nasal cavity (deep and high inside the nose)(Figure 1). When one has a cold, flu or sinusitis, there is swelling and a lot more mucous in the nose. The mucous and swelling in the nose prevents the smell (odorant) from reaching the top of the nasal cavity.  Hence the smell never reaches the smell nerves and  the nerves are not stimulated. After your nose or sinus infection settles, the swelling and excessive mucous resolves. The odorant is then able to reach the smell nerve fibres  again. Hence, you regain your sense of smell. Your sense of taste (ability to detect sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness and umami) is actually normal during your cold or sinus infection. Your food seems “tasteless” during a cold because your appreciation of food flavour and odour comes from your ability to smell! So don’t blame your taste bud for the loss of flavour. It is all due to your stuffed-up nose!



Unfortunately for some, during the cold, flu or sinus infection, the loss of sense of smell is not due to a physical blockage. It is due to the virus, bacteria or inflammation causing damage to the smell nerves during the infection.  If the smell nerves are damaged, the loss of smell is often permanent and irreversible. Most often, the cause for prolonged loss of sense of smell is unknown (Idiopathic). Other common causes of prolonged loss of sense of smell include severe head trauma (potentially causing shearing injury to the smell nerve), chronic sinusitis, nasal polyps and rhinitis. In rare instances the loss may be due to a nose or brain tumour!



If your sense of smell has decreased, you should consult a Singapore ENT Specialist for further assessment. A decrease in sense of smell (relative to what is considered normal for the patient’s age-group) is also increasingly recognised as an early marker for neurodegenerative conditions such as Parkinson’s disease and Alzheimer’s disease.



Best wishes,


Dr Gan Eng Cern
ENT Specialist Singapore

    When Should You See an ENT Specialist in Singapore?

    • Any ear, nose or throat symptoms that you are troubled with or concerned about
    • Persistent blocked nose with mouth breathing or snoring

    Dr Gan Eng Cern

    Dr Gan Eng Cern is a distinguished ENT doctor with fellowship training. In addition to his clinical practice as an ear, nose and throat specialist in Singapore, Dr. Gan has contributed to the academic field as a Senior Clinical Lecturer at the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, National University of Singapore. He is recognised for his extensive research work, with numerous contributions to reputable international ENT journals. Dr Gan is also highly sought after as a speaker and has shared his surgical knowledge as a surgical dissection teacher at various prominent ENT conferences and courses.


    • 2020 – Reader’s Choice Gold Award for Best ENT Specialist (Expat Living Singapore)
    • 2016 – Best Educator Award (Eastern Health Alliance)
    • 2016 – “Wow” Award (Patient Compliment)
    • 2014 – Eastern Health Alliance Caring Award – Silver
    • 2014 – 19th Yahya Cohen Memorial Lectureship (awarded by the College of Surgeons, Academy of Medicine Singapore for best scientific surgical paper)
    • 2012 – Human Manpower Development Award (Ministry of Health, Singapore)
    • 2007 – Singhealth Best Doctor Award


    • MBBS – Bachelor of Science, Bachelor of Medicine, Bachelor of Surgery (University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia)
    • MRCS (Edin) – Member of the Royal College of Surgeons Edinburgh, United Kingdom
    • MMed (ORL) – Master of Medicine in ENT (National University of Singapore)
    • FAMS – Fellow of the Academy of Medicine Singapore

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