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Guide Health: Your nose – nothing to sneeze at

We all take our noses for granted. We breathe through them and smell odours with them, but you really only notice them when your’s doesn’t work well. Yes, you can breathe through your mouth, but you miss the warming and filtering of the air that your nose normally provides.

And you may miss being able to smell, even if you don’t rely, like prehistoric people, on using your sense of smell to detect rotten or unhealthy foods and even predators.

In your nose, ciliated cells act as odour receptors. They sense molecules in air carried to your nose. Nerves lead from these cells to your brain where impulses are interpreted as smell. You may not have the same sensation as another person, but you would both identify the same odour as the aroma of a baking apple pie.

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Anosmia is loss of smell. With no sensation of smell, your food doesn’t taste the same. About 80 per cent of taste is actually smell, and with well-functioning smell your food certainly tastes better.

When you have a congested nose from a cold, sinus infection, hay fever, or even the flu, you probably have noticed your lack of taste. With time these conditions resolve and your senses of taste and smell return. However, sometimes a tumour or nasal polyps may have caused the loss of smell. It certainly is a good idea to have any persistent loss of taste or smell checked.

With old age you don’t smell as well as you once did. This can be attributed to poorly functioning odour receptors in your nose and/or diminished brain activity in interpreting the smell. However, smell is the sense that is most closely associated with memory and specific smells can evoke vivid memories. This is thought to be because the smell centres in the brain are close to two centres for memory, specifically the amygdala and the hippocampus.

Any condition that affects the nervous system can diminish your sense of smell, for example Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease or head trauma. Dental problems and inhaled chemicals can also adversely affect smell. Some drugs can alter the sense of smell, but the mechanism of action is not clear. Examples are non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like ibuprofen, antibiotics like amoxicillin and ciprofloxacin, blood pressure medications like amlodipine, enalapril, losartan, metoprolol, the cholesterol-lowering statin drugs, and ironically, antihistamines that are used to treat allergies and open nasal passages.

There are several openings in your nose. Your tears are produced by lacrimal glands and drain into your nose; that’s why when you cry you usually have a runny nose. The nasal cavities are also open to your sinuses and Eustachian tubes. With a sinus or ear infection, your nose may become involved, and of course vice versa. Sneezing is your nose trying to rid itself of contaminants like dust, pollen, or even cold and flu viruses.

Nasal sprays are used to treat nasal congestion and allergies. At one time decongestant and antihistamine ingredients were common, but because nasal decongestants cause rebound congestion, and because nasal antihistamines are less effective than oral antihistamine tablets, they are no longer widely used.

Nasal corticosteroids are usually recommended to reduce inflammation and congestion, but you need to remember to use them correctly to obtain the most benefit. Blow your nose first, then close your one nostril by holding your finger over it. Gently insert the nasal tip, but don’t forget to remove the protective cap, then breathe in as you spray, and repeat according to the package instructions. Make sure your nasal passages are open sufficiently by sniffing the air before using a nasal spray; otherwise the spray will not reach the best sites. Nasal sprays, when used properly, shouldn’t drip from your nose or down the back of your throat. And, check to see if your spray needs priming or shaking before you use it.

Nasal washes use saline to wash debris and mucous from nasal passages. They are a non-medicated approach to nasal congestion, but the saline solution should be clean and not introduce contamination into your nasal passages.

Take care of your nose. You want to keep breathing and smelling well!

About the author

Contributor

Marie Berry is a lawyer/pharmacist interested in health and education.

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