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Why losing your sense of smell stinks

Your sense of smell is one of the most important senses. Without it, drinking and eating lose their flavor. Half of us lose our sense of smell, even for a short time. But a new study by the Journal of the American Medical Association says many Americans choose to deal with it, rather than seek treatment.

On "The Early Show" Tuesday, Dr. Lisa Liberatore, an ear, nose, and throat specialist from New York's Lenox Hill Hospital, and her patient, Jennifer Rhodes, who lost her sense of smell and decided to get help, discussed why this happens and how you can get it back.

According to Liberatore, most of the time, people don't realize that they lose their sense of smell because it happens gradually.

"We have two organs, two nerves that allow us to smell," she adds. "So if you can smell on one side and that gets you to a certain point, it's not until you lose the nerve on the other side in which you realize that you can't smell at all."

For Rhodes, losing her sense of smell meant losing her taste of food. But she didn't want to jump into getting surgery right away.

"Speaking with Dr. Liberatore, we had done everything non-invasive, non-surgical before we decided on surgery. That was the last decision," she explains. "It (the surgery) was very quick. I went in on a Thursday and I was back to work on Monday."

It's an outpatient, non-painful surgery and the patient doesn't look different afterward, Liberatore notes.

How long did it take for your smell to come back?

"It was instant. When I got home, I had a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It's the most amazing one I ever had," Rhodes says.

"Who knew peanut butter and jelly taste so good, right?" "Early Show" co-anchor Erica Hill adds.

Before you try any non-surgical remedies, Liberatore points out that the most important thing is to try to find the reason you are losing your sense of smell in the first place.

As one of the more common conditions she treats, Liberatore finds the loss in one's sense of smell is caused by nasal congestion, allergies, viral infections, a cold or polyps in the nose. Therefore, the odors of the molecules can't get to the organ of smell.

She also notes that a head injury or some kind of head trauma is also a common cause that sets off a nasal condition.

Can it be environmental?

"Sure, anything which you breathe in which can then irritate those nerves in the roof of the nose can cause a decrease in smell. So there's certain occupations that we know are definitely a problem," she adds. These include construction, people who work with leather, work in formaldehyde, anything breathing in toxins, cleaning people who work with toxic cleaning problems, as well as hair colorists who are often not in a situation where they're not getting good ventilation.

Once you identify the cause, then you talk about treatment and eliminate some of the triggers.

Liberatore suggests using simple salt water solution. She said she tells patients that when they get home from work, they should try to irrigate the nose with a Neti pot or a saline solution, or wear a mask. She added proper ventilation is also an important consideration.

Is it more common that more people are turning to surgery to get back their sense of smell?

"I think because we have minimally invasive techniques, so the surgery doesn't seem as problematic getting back to work and the post-op pain is less," she explains. "Patients are less scared."

Now, with more information available about the surgery, Liberatore said there are fewer misconceptions about the procedure.

If you don't get surgery to treat the loss of smell, it could become permanent, according to Liberatore.

Liberatore said, "I find that the longer the patient has not had a sense of smell... if someone had years and years of polyps, infections and trauma to that sense of smell, the less favorable their recovery is."

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