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Being born with no smell: ‘I don’t know what food tastes like’

By Manish Pandey

We’ve probably all got a favorite smell – maybe one that’s tied up with a particular memory or person, or lets you know a good plate of food is on the way.

Gabriella Sanders has never had the use of her smelling senses – and it affects more than just her nose.

“I don’t know what food tastes like. I can’t taste hot drinks or anything sweet and spicy,” the 22-year-old tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.

It’s not something that many people can relate to, with around 5% of the population suffering from a smell disorder.

But not having a sense of smell can have different types of impact – practical and emotional – on someone’s life, according to a new study from the University of East Anglia. Think childhood fears and awkward teenage moments, to a feeling of failure when not being able to tell your baby’s nappy needs changing.

“I’ve never been able to smell anything. It’s weird because nobody else in my family history has had this – it’s just me and my sister – so it must be something genetic.”

How do you figure out that you can’t smell?

Gabriella remembers “feeling really left out” during a particular school project when she was young.

“It was about senses and everyone was talking about smelling things.”

“That was when I realized I couldn’t smell. Everyone was giving examples but I had no idea what was going on.”

It caused some childhood issues Gabriella might otherwise not have had.

“I had a massive phobia of fire. I had this big anxiety that I wouldn’t wake up when the house was on fire because I wouldn’t be able to smell it,” she tells Radio 1 Newsbeat.

“That definitely affected me when I was younger, but I’ve grown out of that.”

Practical problems

Gabriella had that fear for a serious reason – not being able to smell gas or smoke is a “really big problem” that’s resulted in “serious near misses for some”, according to Professor Carl Philpott, one of the researchers of the UEA study.

Gabriella can relate.

“I remember one time when I was cooking at home. My mum came home and said the whole house smelt like gas. So that was really worrying.

“Things like that, I’ve kind of grown up being scared of. But I’m a lot more cautious now and take precautions.”

It’s not just smells from the outside world that are useful to pick up though – the UEA study found that personal hygiene “was a big cause for anxiety and embarrassment”, because participants couldn’t smell themselves.

As a teenager though, Gabriella came up with a solution.

“My parents and I created code words.

“So if I came home with a friend and smelt really bad, they would tell me so I could quickly run off and sort it out.”

Now Gabriella is a contemporary dancer, which is obviously a pretty active lifestyle.

“In terms of perfumes and stuff, I’ve never really owned anything like that. Things like nice flowers or even bath bombs, it’s never interested me.

“But I use deodorant because I dance every day, even though I’m not into that stuff.”

‘Be open with people’     

It might feel awkward to talk about but Gabriella says not being able to smell is nothing to be ashamed of.

“I think being open with your friends and people around you is important – telling people to be comfortable in telling you if you smell bad.

“I’ve always made sure that people around me know I can’t smell. So I say to them ‘Please tell me and I won’t take offence’.

“I’d rather know than make it unpleasant for everyone else.”

Does Gabriella wish she could smell things?

“It’s not something I need because I’ve never had it, so I don’t know what I’m missing.

“But, I’d love to experience it – and have that feeling of tasting things.”


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