Life after losing, and regaining, a sense of smell

    At Market Blooms in Reading Terminal Market Anndee Hochman attempts to smell the aromas of lilac and eucalyptus. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

    At Market Blooms in Reading Terminal Market Anndee Hochman attempts to smell the aromas of lilac and eucalyptus. (Emma Lee/for NewsWorks)

    Mount Airy resident Anndee Hochman is smelling the Friday-night challah again after living for years without her sense of smell.

    Back in 2012, Newsworks/WHYY joined Hochman at Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal Market to better understand what it’s like to live with anosmia–the medical term for an inability to perceive odor.

    Last year, a specialist recommended a new treatment, and Hochman is smelling again. She says, everything is different.

    Hochman is a foodie and most recently noticed a change while pickling lemons at home. After mashing up thinly sliced lemons with red chili pepper, cumin, coriander, paprika and some olive oil, she covered the mixture and set it aside.

    “I kept coming in the kitchen to lift the cover off the bowl to smell it, just because I could,” Hochman said. “It smelled the way I might imagine a middle-Eastern fruit market might smell.”

    Smell loss can be caused by head trauma, upper respiratory infection or aging.

    Hochman first lost her sense of smell more than eight years ago after a series of bad colds.

    When a viral infection causes anosmia, about two-thirds to three-fourths of patients recover, but that improvement can take several years, according to researchers at the Monell Chemical Sense Center. The chance for recovery is much lower for people who suffer head trauma.

    Monell and researchers at Jefferson University Hospital are exploring basic science to help people with smell loss but right now treatment options are very limited. 

    “For the most part physicians say: “Wait and see what happens,'” said Monell Director Gary Beauchamp. 

    After a series of temporary fixes, in 2013 Hochman tried a ten-day course of steroid medication and uses a nightly nasal rinse—a mix of a saline and a small amount of asthma medication.

    “Squirt it up one nostril it drips down the other, and then do it in reverse. It’s a little revolting but I got used to it. It has succeeded, I’ve been able to smell since May,” Hochman said.

    Monell scientists have now shown that they can isolate living adult nasal stem cells from noses of healthy individuals and promote them to develop into functional olfactory receptor cells that respond to odors. The team is in the process of refining techniques to they can efficiently produce large numbers of these receptor cells before beginning transplantation studies.

    This story was updated on March 2, 2016. 

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal