Olfaction and its alteration by nasal obstruction, rhinitis, and rhinosinusitis

Laryngoscope. 2001 Mar;111(3):409-23. doi: 10.1097/00005537-200103000-00008.


The sense of smell has been largely ignored by otorhinolaryngologists, even though 1) its medical stewardship falls within their specialty's purview, 2) olfactory dysfunction is not uncommon in the general population, and 3) disorders of olfaction have significant quality of life, nutritional, and safety consequences. This report provides a succinct overview of the major intranasal neural systems present in humans (namely, cranial nerves O, I, and V, and the nonfunctional accessory [vomeronasal] organ system), along with a summary of notable findings resulting from the application of modern olfactory tests to patient populations, emphasizing diseases of the nose. Such tests have led to the discovery of significant influences of age, gender, smoking, toxic exposure, and genetics on the ability to smell. Within the field of otorhinolaryngology, they have revealed that 1) surgical and medical interventions in patients with rhinosinusitis do not, on average, lead to complete recovery of olfactory function, despite common beliefs to the contrary, and 2) associations are generally lacking between measures of airway patency and olfactory function in such cases. These findings have thrown into question the dogma that olfactory loss in rhinosinusitis is attributable primarily to blockage of airflow to the receptors and have led to histopathological studies demonstrating significant olfactory epithelial compromise in sinonasal syndromes.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cranial Nerves / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Nasal Obstruction / complications
  • Nasal Obstruction / diagnosis*
  • Nasal Obstruction / physiopathology
  • Olfaction Disorders / etiology*
  • Olfaction Disorders / physiopathology
  • Rhinitis / complications
  • Rhinitis / diagnosis*
  • Rhinitis / physiopathology
  • Sinusitis / complications
  • Sinusitis / diagnosis*
  • Sinusitis / physiopathology