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When smelling, your nose detects the smells by absorbing them.
Does this mean that, if you were in an enclosed space, you could smell so much all the smell goes, and there is none of that molecule left to smell?
Would it take so long it would never happen in reality, or does it happen?
On the contrary, your olfactory epithelium - the bit that does the smelling up at the top of your nasal cavity - doesn't absorb smells. The olfactory receptors bind small molecules reversibly.
However, the olfactory epithelium has a coating of mucus, and so small molecules dissolve in the mucus in order to meet the receptors. Molecules will also evaporate off this mucus, but some vanishingly small fraction of the odorant in a room may stay in the mucus of the nose and the upper respiratory tract long enough to be moved by cilia to the stomach.
I think that for water-soluble molecules, the surface area of mucus lining the airways that odorant can reach is a more relevant factor than the number of a particular receptor (which is very low); but depleting a room of an odorant (which is concentrated enough for you to sense in the first place) by breathing would surely take an extremely long time; as the concentration dropped the remaining molecules would become 'harder to catch', and you'd suffocate first in this enclosed space.
Interestingly, hydrophobic molecules that do not readily dissolve in mucus may be bound by soluble 'shuttle'-like proteins which bridge the gap to the receptors: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12044155 These odorant-binding-proteins probably contribute to the diversity of molecules we can smell, and presumably also bind odorants reversibly and may release them back in to the nasal cavity.
6 Weird Signs Your Body Odor Isn't Normal
Body odor is one of those things most of us take great pains to prevent. That's why we're constantly stayin' fresh with gum, perfumes, and deodorant. (I have all three in my bag right now.) But despite our best efforts, smelly odors often prevail. And sometimes that body odor can be sign of a health problem.
Now, before you freak out, I'm talking about some pretty bad smells — not your normal, run of the mill, everyday scents. For example, everyone stinks after a trip to the gym. According to Charlotte Hilton Andersen on Shape, that's because sweat gets digested by bacteria that live on our skin, particularly in our pits. When the bacteria break down the sweat molecules, they release an odor that can be described as sulfurous, or onion-y. Take a shower, slap on some deodorant, and you'll be fine.
What are more worrying are the pervasive, horrendous stenches that don't seem so normal. Or the kinds of odors that crop up one day and make you take pause. If showering and better hygiene aren't doing the trick, then these smells might be cause for concern, or at least a better treatment plan. Here are some body odor problem areas, and what they all might mean for your health.
1. Your Scalp Smells Kind Of. Funky
Everyone's hair gets a little musty from time to time, but some people have a next-level smell that can send people running for the hills. This has been named "Smelly Hair Syndrome," and the scent goes way past anything "normal." In fact, some people describe their hair as smelling like a dirty diaper, mildew, a wet dog, an old shoe, or even Doritos Bold BBQ chips, according to Perry Romanowski on HuffingtonPost.com. Definitely descriptive.
Unfortunately, doctor's aren't entirely sure what causes Smelly Hair Syndrome, but there are a few guesses. As Claire Colemon noted on the Daily Mail, it could be due to super oily hair picking up smells from the environment, such as smoke, cooking odors, and other strong smells. The more oily your hair, the more likely the smells are to be picked up. It could also be connected to sweat glands, which cover your scalp just like oil glands. If you have oily hair and you're prone to sweating, then that might be the perfect recipe for a smelly scalp.
So what's a smelly-haired gal to do? As Romanowski suggested, "Dial antibacterial liquid body wash and sulfur-containing soaps. These treatments make sense from a scientific point of view, if the cause is bacterial or fungal. An antibacterial agent (like the Triclosan used in the Dial bodywash) could prevent bacteria from growing, while sulfur could reduce scalp oiliness thereby eliminating the 'food' that bacteria or fungi need to grow." Sounds worth a try, since anything's better than diaper hair.
2. Your Breath Is Kickin'
There seem to be a million and one cause for bad breath — everything from poor dental hygiene, to gum disease, to that burrito you had for lunch. But if you brush regularly, and have been checked by your dentist, then there might be something else lurking in your body that's causing the problem.
According to the Mayo Clinic, "Diseases, such as some cancers, and conditions such as metabolic disorders, can cause a distinctive breath odor as a result of chemicals they produce. Chronic reflux of stomach acids (gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD) can be associated with bad breath." These all produce different kinds of bad smells, which can point to a specific issue.
There's also something called "ketone breath," which is worth considering. It's caused by a low-carb diet, and can make breath smell a bit like nail polish remover. According to Denise Mann on WebMD, "Bad breath in the low/no-carb sect is often caused by certain chemicals that are released in the breath as the body burns fat. They are called ketones, and entering into a fat-burning state of ketosis is the hallmark of the Atkins diet." It may smell a bit off, but at least it's a sign your diet is working.
3. Your Sweat Is Ripe
Everyone sweats. Unless you skipped out on deodorant, no one is likely to notice. But sometimes life gets a little hairy, and you experience more stress than usual. When that happens, you may start to produce something called stress sweat. And this isn't as easy to cover up.
According to the Mayo Clinic, we all have eccrine glands that cover most of our body and open directly onto the surface of the skin. We also have something called apocrine glands, which develop in areas like the armpits and groin. They empty into the hair follicle just before it opens on the skin surface. Stress sweat comes out of the apocrine gland, and smells way different.
Unlike our everyday eccrine glands, apocrine glands release sweat in response to several factors, including hormone, anxiety, or emotional stress. When the bacteria on the skin start to break down this type of sweat, it can cause an unpleasant odor, according to the Mayo Clinic. (That's why you smell extra horrible after a nerve-racking date, or right before an interview.)
If this is happening all the time, and you find yourself mopping up smelly smells on the regular, then consider reevaluating how you handle stress.
4. Your Vagina Has Seen (Smelled?) Better Days
There are a multitude of things that can affect the smell of your nether regions — your period, infections, poor hygiene. The list goes on and on. And while a lot of smells are totally normal, there are definitely some that are worth checking out.
These are the more, well, shocking smells that are usually accompanied by discharge. According to Samantha Lefave on RedBookMag.com, "Having discharge alone is normal, yes. But having it come out clumpy or smelling like a trip to the raw fish market is not good, and it could mean a yeast infection, sexually transmitted infection (STI), or even chlamydia. As soon as you notice these symptoms, get to your gyno. Depending on your diagnosis, you'll definitely need a course of treatment." The sooner you get yourself checked out, the better.
5. Your Pee Is Super Stinky
No one ever said pee smelled good, but it really shouldn't smell bad, either. As Lefave noted, "Normally urine is scent-less, or if it has a scent, it's usually a very subtle, ammonia-like smell . So if you get a big whiff without even trying — and it's accompanied by pain, typically a burning sensation, when you pee — schedule a gyno visit. You could have a urinary tract infection (UTI) and will likely need to cycle through some antibiotics."
While a UTI is more worrying, it's not the only cause for stinky pee. It could be caused by something as benign as what you ate last night. According to Lefave, urine smell is extremely variable, and can change with your diet. This is especially the case if you eat asparagus, which causes a pungent smell. Urine can also be a bit stronger when you're dehydrated. If that's the case, there's nothing to worry about. Just drink more water, and move on with your life.
6. Your Feet Wreak
Stinky feet, medically known as "bromodosis," can affect anyone. That's because our feet are covered in sweats glands, and by know we all know what those mean — smelly smells.
And feet sure are prone to sweating. According to WebMD.com, "There are more sweat glands in our feet than anywhere else in the body. However, unlike sweat glands elsewhere in the body, the sweat glands in the feet secrete all the time, not just in response to heat or exercise." Cue bacteria going to town on sweat, thus creating a less-than-pleasant, almost cheesy odor. This can happen more often to people who wear the same shoes everyday, as well as to women going through stress or hormonal changes.
It can also be a sign of Athlete's foot, which is caused by a fungus growing on the top layer of your skin. (Lovely!) If that's the case, you'll want to take good care of your feet, and get an over-the-counter anti fungal cream, suggested WebMD.
Smelly body odors are embarrassing, but they happen to everyone. However, they can be a sign of an underlying health problem. So if you've been feeling less than fresh, get yourself checked out by a doctor ASAP.
Images: Pakin Songmor/Moment/Getty Images, Shutterstock (2) BDG Media
Detecting sickness by smell
Humans are able to smell sickness in someone whose immune system is highly active within just a few hours of exposure to a toxin, according to new research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
According to researcher Mats Olsson of Karolinska Institutet in Sweden, there is anecdotal and scientific evidence suggesting that diseases have particular smells. People with diabetes, for example, are sometimes reported to have breath that smells like rotten apples or acetone.
Being able to detect these smells would represent a critical adaptation that would allow us to avoid potentially dangerous illnesses. Olsson wondered whether such an adaptation might exist already at an early stage of the disease.
"There may be early, possibly generic, biomarkers for illness in the form of volatile substances coming from the body," explains Olsson.
To test this hypothesis, Olsson and his team had eight healthy people visit the laboratory to be injected with either lipopolysaccharide (LPS) -- a toxin known to ramp up an immune response -- or a saline solution. The volunteers wore tight t-shirts to absorb sweat over the course of 4 hours.
Importantly, participants injected with LPS did produce a noticeable immune response, as evidenced by elevated body temperatures and increased levels of a group of immune system molecules known as cytokines.
A separate group of 40 participants were instructed to smell the sweat samples. Overall, they rated t-shirts from the LPS group as having a more intense and unpleasant smell than the other t-shirts they also rated the LPS shirt as having an unhealthier smell.
The association between immune activation and smell was accounted for, at least in part, by the level of cytokines present in the LPS-exposed blood. That is, the greater a participant's immune response, the more unpleasant their sweat smelled.
Interestingly, in a chemical assay the researchers found no difference in the overall amount of odorous compounds between the LPS and control group. This suggests that there must have been a detectable difference in the composition of those compounds instead.
While the precise chemical compounds have yet to be identified, the fact we give off some kind of aversive signal shortly after the immune system has been activated is an important finding, the researchers argue. It grants us a better understanding of the social cues of sickness, and might also open up doors for understanding how infectious diseases can be contained.
Can Humans Smell Cancer?
“Did you have red Tabasco sauce with your last meal?” Joy asked me as my husband and I were driving her from San Francisco to Chico, California.
I was surprised by her question. I did have red Tabasco sauce the night before, but not more that 4 drops. How could Joy have smelt it? “Yes”, I said, “but it was such a minuscule amount”.
“I can smell it” she commented laughing.
The 3-hour car trip from San Francisco to Chico, California was off to a good start. Joy was definitely an impressive super smeller.
My husband and I had been fascinated with Joy Milne’s story since 2015 when she asked the question at a Parkinson’s disease research lecture: “Why are we not using the smell of Parkinson’s disease to detect it earlier?” Joy had detected a change in the way her husband’s skin smelled 12 years before he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease and she detected the same smell in other Parkinson’s disease patients. In 2016, Joy started being formally tested in clinical trials which are revealing her ability to detect the molecules which are present in the sebum produced in Parkinson’s disease.
In January 2018, my husband and I flew to Scotland to interview Joy. At that time, a thought hit us: Since Joy was a super-smeller, could she also have the ability to detect cancer by smell only?
We knew there had been published studies citing Dina Zaphiris’ dogs (In Situ Foundation) from Chico, California, describing how Dina’s trained dogs could detect cancer in breath and urine samples of cancer patients. Many other studies were published but no study had been done exploring humans’ ability to smell cancer, for an understandable reason: No human could have a nose as sensitive as a dog.
However, Joy did mention that during the years she worked as a nurse, she noticed that people with cancer had a particular smell.
What if Joy could detect the smell of cancer? What if she could answer many questions such as: What does cancer smell like? Is it the same smell for different cancers or is it different smells? Does the smell change when cancer metastasizes?
To address these questions, and more, my husband and I flew Joy from Scotland to San Francisco in August 2018, then drove her to the In Situ Foundation in Chico to sniff both cancer and healthy human breath samples.
As we arrived in Chico, my body shivered with excitement. We were about to dive into experimental territory.
Upon arrival at the In Situ Foundation dog training facility, Joy requested to sniff unused masks so that she could identify the basic mask fabric smell and exclude it in future sessions. She got her request granted.
After a quick lunch, Joy sat at an empty table and placed a bag of coffee beans to her left (she uses the smell of fresh coffee beans, then the smell of her own forearm to bring her sense of smell back to neutral) and a bowl of spring water and facial cloth to her right.
She was ready for the first session.
An Exploratory Session:
Dina presented to Joy 2 kinds of masks: “cancer masks” (masks in which people who had cancer had breathed) and masks in which nobody had breathed. We placed those on Joy’s table, mixed them up, then we asked Joy to come to the table and sniff each mask to see if she could differentiate the smell of “cancer masks” from the smell of unused masks.
When we reviewed the masks used in the experiment, we saw that Joy’s selection of cancer masks were indeed all the masks in which cancer patients had breathed. She was 100% accurate. This indicated that Joy could smell the difference between unused masks and masks in which people had breathed. But was it cancer she could smell or just the fact that somebody had breathed into a mask?
The only way to test if Joy could smell cancer was to mix “cancer masks” (masks in which people who had cancer had breathed) and “healthy masks” (masks in which healthy people had breathed).
Second Day Experiment:
It was time to test if Joy could detect cancer in random breath samples.
We selected 5 “healthy masks” and 5 “cancer masks”, mixed them up, and asked Joy what she could smell.
Taking her time, sniffing the inside and outside of each mask, Joy finally said that 3 of the 10 masks she was smelling smelled like cancer. As a matter of fact, for those 3 masks, she had an immediate body reaction when opening the zip lock bag which contained the masks. “Those 3 masks”, said Joy “have a creamy yeast smell but as the volatile compounds get in the air and become subtler, more layers reveal a mucous and salt smell. The other samples don’t have that smell.”
When we looked at whom those samples belonged to, we realized that the 3 masks Joy strongly reacted to, were all 3 cancer masks. The 4th and 5th mask were not viable. Another sample was indeterminate. The other 4 samples were identified as healthy masks.
The questions worth asking are: Is the creamy yeast smell directly related to cancer or could it be related to something else? And is what Joy describes the same smell as what the cancer sniffing dogs detect?
What can we make out of this experiment?
All we can say is that results are promising and that it may be possible that Joy is able to detect cancer by smelling masks in which people have breathed but double-blind studies on a high number of samples are clearly warranted.
Let’s see which studies have been published so far.
Previous research on cancer detection by smell only:
There are many published articles on cancer detection by dogs using breath samples, urine, blood and skin samples.
In Florida, D. Pickel et al. published in 2004 in Applied Animal Behaviour Science a paper describing the accurate ability of 2 dogs to detect melanoma cancer from skin samples.
In California, McCulloch and colleagues demonstrated in Integrative Cancer Therapies (2006) that 5 dogs (the dogs were trained by Dina Zaphiris) were able to very accurately distinguish by scent alone, exhaled breath samples that belonged to cancer patients versus healthy controls (55 lung cancer patients and 31 breast cancer patients versus 83 healthy controls). McCulloch found a high sensitivity and specificity for even early cancers.
Abdah-Bortnyak and colleagues published in the 2009 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology that using gas chromatogaphy linked with mass spectrometry and electronic nose for breath samples analysis, they could differentiate between healthy and cancerous breath with a more than 92% sensitivity and also between the breath of patients with different cancer types (40 healthy controls, 30 people with lung cancer, 15 with breast cancer, 20 with colon cancer, 5 with prostate cancer and 4 with head and neck cancer).
In Japan in 2011, Hideto Sonoda and colleagues studied the ability of dogs to detect colorectal cancer from exhaled breath and stool samples of patients with and without colorectal cancer. Like McCulloch in California, Hideto Sonoda found that the dogs had high sensitivity and specificity for even early cancer.
In France also in 2011, Jean-Nicolas Cornu et al. published in European Urology Journal the study of one dog’s high ability to detect prostate cancer from the smell of urine.
In Sweden in 2013, György Horvath and colleagues published a study on 2 dogs’ ability to detect ovarian cancer from smelling one drop of blood plasma. The researchers studied 42 ovarian cancer patients and 210 healthy controls. The dogs detected the cancer with 97% sensitivity and 99% specificity. In part 2 of the study, the dogs were able to accurately predict that 3 patients would have recurrence of their ovarian cancer.
In Italy in 2014, Gianluigi Taverna studied 2 German Shepherd’s ability to identify prostate cancer in urine samples. Dr. Taverna studied 362 patients with prostate cancer and 540 healthy controls. Sensitivity and specificity were very high (over 97%) for both dogs. The results were published in the 2014 Journal of Urology. Similar studies were done in the United States.
Now, Professor Jouko Vepsālāinen from the university of Eastern Finland is conducting studies on the smell of cancer and thinks that the answer to that smell may be polyamines.
Johanna Riikka Niemi MD and her team (Tampere University Hospital in Finland) published in the September 2017 issue of the International Journal of Gynecological Cancer that using liquid chromatography in tandem with mass spectrometry to analyze patients’ urine, they found that a type of polyamine called N1 N12 diacetylspermine was able to distinguish benign and malignant ovarian tumors. This N1 N12 diacetylspermine was more elevated in stage 3 and 4 versus stage 1 and 2 and also was more elevated in high malignant potential versus low malignant potential.
Lorenzo Ramirez and colleagues in the 2018 issue of the Journal of Clinical Oncology showed strong evidence that using a combination of trained dogs with gas chromatography in tandem with mass spectrometry detects ovarian cancer from patients’ blood.
All of those studies used either dogs or an electric nose but none of those studies included any human sniffing cancer.
What can we learn from all this?
It seems that there is a specific smell to cancer, even at an early stage, as indicated by dogs, artificial nose, gas chromatography and mass spectrometry.
This is a major finding because smell could be a non-invasive early indicator of cancer which would allow us, physicians, to treat cancers early before they metastasize which would give most cancer patients the opportunity to be completely cured thanks to an early treatment.
Gordon Shepherd wrote in 2004 in PLOS/Biology that humans are not poor smellers but rather are relatively good, perhaps even excellent smellers. Even though they have a low number of olfactory receptors in the nose (6 million for humans versus 300 million for dogs), they also use the back of their throat and many parts of their brain to identify many complex smells.
As for Jess Porter and colleagues, they prove in the 2007 Nature Neuroscience Journal that humans can scent-track just like dogs do and that they improve with practice.
In fact, there are quite a few anectodical online posts from random people who describe the “cancer smell” as a “sweet fruity sickly” smell while others describe it as a “dead fish” smell but no research was done on those.
Could that “sweet fruity” smell be related to the “creamy yeast smell with layers revealing a mucous and salt smell” described by Joy? And could that smell be the smell of polyamines that Professor Vepsālāinen and Dr. Niemi in Finland are studying?
As a matter of fact, it would be very interesting to see if cancer sniffing dogs and also Joy alert on the smell of polyamines, specifically the N1 N12 Diacetylspermine mentioned above.
Could I, myself, smell cancer?
As I sniffed the masks that had belonged to cancer patients and compared them to healthy ones (I did this after Joy had finished her experiment), I could detect a “creamy yeast smell” in “cancer masks” that I didn’t detect in “healthy masks”.
But again, was it the smell of cancer or not?
If it were, could anybody with the right training detect the smell of cancer?
Maybe all we need is practice paying attention to what we smell. Most of us are so visual that we ignore the smells that are literally in front of our noses.
So, if we practiced sniffing different smells every day, some of us could work our way to detecting cancer by smell.
What simple exercise can we start with?
A simple exercise each of us can do today to save lives:
Be aware of your own smell (the smell of your skin, of your breath, of your urine…).
Be aware of the smell of your loved ones, your children, your partner, your parents, your friends (their breath, their skin).
If you notice any radical and consistent change (over several days and weeks) in the way your loved one smells, or if somebody tells you that your smell has changed, contact your doctor for a checkup.
Not only could you detect the scent of a new lover on your partner (that’s one of the downsides of sniffing), you could probably detect if he or she is becoming diabetic, is developing Parkinson’s disease or a deadly cancer.
Then, you could save a life allowing an early medical referral, an early diagnosis and a life-saving early treatment.
To paraphrase Yogi Berra who said "you can observe a lot just by watching", when it comes to odors important to health, we can say "you can smell a lot just by sniffing."
Erickson et al. (2010) surveyed customers of 23andMe, a company which genotyped the individuals at 535,076 single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs). They asked 10,000 customers of northern European ancestry "Have you ever noticed a peculiar odor when you pee after eating asparagus?" and received 4737 responses. There was a statistically strong association between the answers and a region on chromosome 1 containing 10 olfactory receptor genes. At the SNP with the strongest association, a G/A polymorphism, 56.7% of GG, 70.9% of GA, and 74.0% of AA individuals reported stinky asparagus urine. This suggests that there is genetic variation in either excretion or ability to smell, but it is not clear which.
Pelchat et al. (2011) separated two traits, excreting stinky compounds and being able to smell them, and determined genotypes for the SNP for which Erickson et al. (2010) found the strongest association. They found an association of SNP genotype with the ability to smell asparagus urine, but no significant association with excreting.
Science Explains Why Some People Are Naturally Smellier Than Others
MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - JANUARY 22: Roger Federer of Switzerland wipes sweat in his third round match . [+] against Grigor Dimitrov of Bulgaria during day five of the 2016 Australian Open at Melbourne Park on January 22, 2016 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Michael Dodge/Getty Images)
Why are some people smellier than others? originally appeared on Quora - the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.
Answer by Adriana Heguy, molecular biologist and genomics researcher, on Quora:
Body odor and halitosis are caused by bacteria. But they are different in nature so I will address them separately.
Body odor: our armpits and groin get smelly when we sweat, not because sweat smells in itself, but because bacteria break down odorless compounds in our sweat into thioalcohols, which are pungent chemicals, similar to those in onions (in fact, human sweat can smell a bit like onions). Thioalcohols are volatile compounds so they are perfect for producing strong smells. The main commensal bacteria in the armpit is Staphylococcus hominis ( Meet The Bacteria That Make A Stink In Your Pits ). Armpits and groin are typically moist, warm, and dark, and bacteria love those environments. To make matters worse, hair traps smells. But why do different people smell differently when they sweat? Before the obvious use of deodorants and antiperspirants, the composition of the skin microbiome, that is, all the microorganisms that live on our skin normally, varies between different people. We are only beginning to understand what these differences in skin flora are due to, but it's in all likelihood affected a mix of intrinsic factors such as the person's immune system, and also environmental factors. But it's easy to imagine how someone with a higher proportion of bacteria that produce volatile pungent compounds will be smellier than others.
In addition, our skin has scent glands similar to those of other animals, and while they usually do not produce very smelly compounds, and often we cannot really recognize a person by his or her individual scent (though my dogs can, and yours too) we all have our distinctive odor, and that contributes to the general body smell.
The smell of one's breath also depends on the microbiome, but in this it's the oral microbiome. The composition is different in different people, and it's once again due to a mix of intrinsic factors and environmental factors, notably dietary. Some people have a higher proportion of bacteria that digest our food (such as sugar and protein) and produce hydrogen sulfide and methyl mercaptan, which are the two compounds that correlate the strongest with what we perceive as foul breath. These species are mostly responsible for bad breath: Porphyromonas gingivalis, Treponema denticola and Prevotella intermedia, and these live in gaps between the gum and tooth and in the mosh pit crevices of the tongue. But what is emerging from current studies of the oral microbiome is that it is the whole oral ecosystem that influences the smell of breath. Mouthwashes for example kill the "bad" bacteria but also the "good" bacteria that counteract their action. It could well be that the best solution to combat bad breath, besides obvious good oral hygiene, is to try to affect the balance of microbe species in the mouth. Scientific American has an excellent article on this: To Beat Bad Breath, Keep the Bacteria in Your Mouth Happy.
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The World in My Nose
The uncanny feeling came on suddenly one morning. I got up out of the bed in the room where I spent my teenage years—and where I have been staying in my parents’ house in between apartments, waiting out the quarantine era—to take a shower. Immediately, I noticed the usually fragrant shampoo and body wash smells were missing. I stuck my nose into a bottle and filled my lungs to the brim with air, two or three times in a row. I came up with nothing.
Overnight, my nose had become a useless appendage. I had tested positive for the coronavirus in late October, just before the U.S. presidential election. Besides some basic flu symptoms and a strangely increased heart rate—which may or may not have actually been pre-election anxiety—I was spared the most wretched effects that have tortured so many people. But just a few days after my diagnosis, it seemed I was experiencing one particularly vexing symptom: the total loss of my sense of smell.
As it turned out, the inability to smell wasn’t something that affected most of my day. I went through the motions of daily life—now mostly spent indoors—without noticing much of a difference. But that made the shock of the sense’s absence even more profound when it hit. Either while preparing a meal, during a sweaty workout, or in the shower, it felt like someone hit an off switch on part of my brain, leaving a profound emptiness in a place that used to process sensation. It was disorienting, and I felt slightly alien in my own body.
Some of my sense has gradually returned two months later, but it is far from back to normal, which is common. Researchers believe the process could take several months for some, and others might not ever fully regain their senses of smell. So much is still unclear because of how little understood COVID-19’s long-term effects are. By my completely unscientific approximation, I only have about 60 percent of my sense back. That might sound relatively promising—or horrifying, depending on your temperament—but my progress plateaued after about a month. And the feeling of limbo since has been almost worse than the original loss, because it implanted in my head the scary idea that I might not ever fully gain my sense back.
So, last month, I gave in and began searching for the most popular ways to regain one’s olfactory abilities. The best solution the internet seemed to offer was aromatherapy, the catch-all term for the use of certain smells to help with a range of things, from improving one’s mood to increasing productivity. It basically involves sniffing essential oils from plants or other sources. But where does an essential oils novice start? Scrolling through the well-manicured websites that market them with an attractively minimalist, Instagram-ready aesthetic was confounding. Some oils were a few dollars, others were upward of $50 for a small bottle. I wondered if what sometimes worked for anosmia (the scientific term) caused by the common cold or smoking would translate to COVID smell loss. Lemon and orange oils sounded nice, but would they be effective for me?
I soon came across a British charity called AbScent, which works to help people regain their sense of smell after various ailments. The AbScent starter pack consists of rose, lemon, eucalyptus, and clove oils. But in one interview, the group’s founder admitted that the oils are completely interchangeable. In fact, you don’t even need to use essential oils at all. She said that shoe polish, coffee, or spices can work just as well.
Should I be huffing shoe polish or oranges? The answer wasn’t clear. So in keeping with my current arrested development at home, I reached out to the dad of one of my best friends, John Glendinning, a biology professor at Barnard who studies our sense of taste, which is deeply intertwined with and affected by our sense of smell. He gave me the best piece of advice I’ve received through my bout of COVID so far: Forget the oils, and instead smell every single spice in your kitchen cabinets twice a day.
As it turns out, my parents have a lot of spices. And so a hallowed ritual was born. I pull a chair up to the kitchen island that houses my parents’ spice drawer and settle in. Each time I open the drawer, I take a few seconds to review all of the spices, which are arranged alphabetically, from an adobo blend to za’atar. Then I dig in, taking my time to get through all 40 jars and packets spread across three interior racks.
The sniffs per spice ranges from one to several. Some are more potent, like cumin and pepper. Some are less so, or don’t have much of a smell at all, like marjoram or ground celery seed. (I have also learned that just about any spice can lose its smell if it is a few years past the expiration date—I’m sure you’re great, marjoram.) I leave the best few—in my opinion, the warmer varieties like cardamom, clove, and nutmeg—for last, like a fine dessert.
Beyond the possible medical benefits, my regular spice-sniffing exercise has turned into something more. For those 15 minutes, I am not working I am not reading the news on my phone I am not doomscrolling through Twitter I am not being “productive” (read: checking my email, learning Spanish on Duolingo, checking my email again). The process has proved more enjoyable and rewarding than any meditation I have ever tried. Sometimes when I close my eyes while sniffing, I’m transported to India or Lebanon or Mexico, on a sensory tour of multiple cultures and culinary ideas that has taken my brain far beyond the confines of quarantine in New Jersey.
Can you smell the perfect partner?
At first, I'm not even sure how best to frame the question in order to secure my wife's participation.
"Would you mind taking a quick DNA test," I say, "to determine our genetic compatibility?"
"Am I going to be told I have a fatal disease?" she asks.
"No," I say. "It's just to find out whether or not we were meant to be together."
"Oh," she says. "Fine. Whatever."
On the day we each spit into separate test tubes, I don't yet understand how a DNA test can offer evidence of compatibility, because I am only on page eight of Daniel M Davis's book The Compatibility Gene. But here's the gist of the idea: there are a small number of human genes – a tiny section of the short arm of chromosome six – that may play a role in determining how attractive you are to a potential mate. Suitable partners can literally sniff each other out, finding an optimal genetic other half using their noses.
The basis for this notion is the so-called smelly T-shirt experiment, first performed by a Swiss zoologist called Claus Wedekind in 1994. He analysed a particular bit of the DNA of a group of students, looking specifically at the major histocompatibility genes (MHC). The students were then split into 49 females and 44 males. The men were asked to wear plain cotton T-shirts for two nights while avoiding anything – alcohol, cologne etc – that might alter their natural odour. After two days the shirts were placed in cardboard boxes with holes in them, and the women were asked to rank the boxes by smell using three criteria: intensity, pleasantness and sexiness.
Wedekind's results appeared to show that the women preferred the T-shirts worn by men with different compatibility genes from themselves, raising the possibility that we unconsciously select mates who would put our offspring at some genetic advantage. The experiment was controversial, but it did alter scientific thinking about compatibility genes. And while the mechanism behind this phenomenon is poorly understood, that hasn't stopped dating agencies from employing MHC typing as a matchmaking tool. One lab offering such testing to online agencies (you can't smell potential partners over the internet not yet), a Swiss company called GenePartner, claims: "With genetically compatible people we feel that rare sensation of perfect chemistry."
As I walk to the postbox with my two test tubes of spit in an envelope, the idea of testing my genetic affinity with my wife suddenly strikes me as foolhardy. Twenty years of marriage should be the very definition of compatibility, but what if the results tell a different story? I don't want to discover that on a cold winter's night two decades ago, my wife took one sniff of me and fell in love with my deodorant. I don't think they even make that kind any more.
Davis also tested his marital compatibility for the book and, while he may be a director of the University of Manchester's Collaborative Centre of Inflammation Research, he admits to similar, not wholly rational, misgivings.
"It was definitely more weird than I thought," he told me, adding that his wife was "unexpectedly nervous about what they might find." He needn't have worried – they were pronounced perfectly compatible.
They aren't called your compatibility genes because they help you find a compatible partner they're called that because they govern the acceptance and rejection of transplanted organs. And that's not their intended role, either. As Professor Steven Marsh – deputy director of research at the Anthony Nolan Histocompatibility Laboratories, where I sent my spit – puts it: "The molecules that give you your tissue type, they're not there just to make transplantation difficult. Their job is to fight infection." They are, in short, your immune system.
Davis's book tells the story of the search for these compatibility genes, from the early days of blood transfusion to the cutting-edge science that has yet to appear in the textbooks. "I kind of wanted to step back and take in the big picture," he says. "You can quite easily have a successful career in science without knowing how you got where you are." As a journalist and a layman I am normally happy to summarise decades of tireless research with the words, "It's complicated", but some further explanation is warranted.
Your immune cells don't know a virus from a transplanted kidney they work by distinguishing between "self" and "non-self". The "self" is expressed at the molecular level, by your MHC genes they provide the signature that gives your tissue its identity. Actually, your body also produces immune cells that would attack your own tissue, but they are killed off by your thymus in a process known as "thymic education". The T in T-cell denotes an immune cell that has survived this screening.
Your MHC genes also encode the instructions to produce HLA molecules – human leukocyte antigens – that display proteins from inside your cell on its surface. "If you have a virus," says Marsh, "these are the molecules that are taking little bits of the virus [protein segments called peptides], showing it to other cells in the body, and saying: 'What is this? Is this me, or is it foreign?'" HLA molecules possess a groove into which peptides fit, but there are lots of different types of HLA molecules, and some are a better fit for certain peptides than others. The range of HLA types you possess – effectively your genetic "self" – comprises your ability to fight off certain diseases, and your susceptibility to others. They are distributed among us in a way that protects the population as a whole – so an epidemic can't kill us all – but at the personal level a healthy diversity of HLA types is an obvious benefit. When someone smells attractive to you, so the notion goes, you're smelling HLA types you don't have.
It is not completely understood how all this works at the molecular level, but it is at this forefront that Davis toils. "My research is in developing microscopes that look with better resolution at immune cells and how they interact with other cells," he says. This interaction is "reminiscent of the way neurons communicate" in the brain, raising the possibility that your compatibility genes are responsible for more than just fighting infection, and could even influence how your brain functions. I confess to Davis that I don't really understand this part. "None of us do," he says. "I just happened to write a book about it."
But how does the smelling thing work – if it works? It has been shown that mice can, and do, detect compatibility genes by smell, and that stickleback fish also choose mates by their odour, but in humans, Davis admits, the jury is out. "How it works on the olfactory level is basically not understood at all," he says.
Marsh points out that your HLA genes share a neighbourhood on the genome with certain olfactory receptors, and that these are inherited together. "The fact that these genes are right next door to your HLA genes suggest they may have some role in mate selection," he says. "But this might be a bit of pre-history. It may have been important when you were a mouse."
Two weeks after posting our samples, following a car journey that does little to enhance our compatibility, my wife and I finally locate the histocompatibility laboratories. As we are ushered into a boardroom, I prepare myself for revelations I may not like, or even comprehend.
The labs do not analyse HLA types in order to facilitate dating. They do rather more important work, matching tissue types for bone marrow transplants and saving lives. Sharing HLA types with a donor reduces the risk that a stem cell graft will be seen as non-self, and rejected. There are 500,000 potential donors on Anthony Nolan's register, and they have access to a further 750,000 from other UK registers, plus a worldwide database with 22 million names on it. They also spend a lot of time educating the public about stem-cell donation, which is not the invasive surgical procedure it once was.
"It's actually very straightforward," says Ellen Marshall, Anthony Nolan's communications manager. "Ninety per cent of people donate by a method called peripheral blood stem cell collection, which is similar in nature to giving blood." Basically, they take blood out of one arm, harvest stem cells from it, and return it to the other arm. You only donate in the event that you're matched with a recipient, and to join the register all you have to do is send them your spit, as I did.
I can't make much sense of the test results without first getting a bit of education from Marsh. We are primarily concerned, he tells me, with the five major histocompatibility genes: HLA-A, HLA-B, HLA-C, HLA-DR and HLA-DQ. You inherit these in a block and you end up with two sets, one from each parent. Each set is known as a haplotype each specific version of a gene is called an allele. Without further testing it is not possible to know for sure which alleles came from which parent, but because certain ones are commonly found together, they can make a statistical best guess about your haplotypes.
"We'll do you first," says Marsh, handing me a sheet of paper with some numbers on it. "That's your tissue type." I nod, because it seems like the right thing to do.
My HLA-A allele on one haplotype, he explains, goes by the name HLA-A*32:01:01. Lots of people have it, apparently. The HLA-B*53:01:01 on the other haplotype, however, is rare among Caucasians, but commonly found in west Africa. He produces two maps showing the geographical spread of my sort of haplotypes. One is most frequently found in Ireland the other in Russia.
This makes sense. Although I was born in America, I am about as genetically Irish as it is possible to be, the only potential exception being my father's mother, who was adopted. My father once told me she was a Chechen, but he actually has no idea, and tends to change his story depending on which interesting nationalities happen to be in the news. According to my DNA, however, he may have been right.
Statistically speaking, I possess the 39th most common haplotype among European caucasians, alongside the 125th.
"So they're not quite the commonest ones," says Marsh.
"Let's face it," says my wife. "They're pretty common."
"It's a different sort of common," I say. "This is science."
Marsh produces my wife's report. I immediately spot that we share one allele – the aforementioned HLA-A*32:01:01. But this bit of matching type does not mean we aren't one another's type.
"That's the only one you share," says Marsh. "You're quite different, so if the whole sniffing-your-mate-out is to be believed, then you've managed to sniff out a good mate."
It's not a terribly romantic revelation, but it's a relief. As he explains to my wife that her haplotypes are rarer than mine – "much, much rarer," she says – Marsh can barely conceal his excitement. You don't need to be a scientist to see that he is withholding some information that pleases him.
"Interestingly, there's also a B*27 knocking around there," he says. I know from reading Davis's book that having a B*27 gene increases your risk of contracting ankylosing spondylitis, but I'm pretty sure my wife hasn't got ankylosing spondylitis.
"Occasionally we come across people with types we've never seen before," says Marsh. Oh God, I think. Not her.
"You have a new B*27 allele that we've never seen before in the world," he says. "We'll be sequencing you properly, your sequence will go in the database, and we'll give it a new number." My wife beams.
"I feel like I've won a rosette!" she says. She instantly forgets why we've come – to test our compatibility. She is no longer interested in that little piece of good news. On the car ride home she is insufferable.
"I can't wait to tell everyone I've got an unknown – what have I got?"
"A brand new allele," she says. "Yours are all common, whereas mine is unique, like me."
"That's great," I say. "Good luck finding a match for your next bone marrow transplant."
Later I feel bad about saying this, because she's my wife, and she is unique. I smelled her out of thousands.
How To Deodorize A Smelly Bathroom
Terrible bathroom smells can make your bathroom seem like a toxic wasteland. Keep your bathroom deodorized and fresh with these clever hacks.
1. Essential Oils To The Rescue!
Add a couple drops of essential oil inside the toilet paper roll to release a fresh scent every time someone uses the TP.
You’ll be surprised at how much fresher your bathroom is with this quick trick.
We have even more stinky room solutions in our post about using essential oils in your home.
2. Deep Clean Your Bathroom.
You may not even realize it but over time, untreated mold in your bathroom grout can contribute to a musty bathroom smell. And on the floor, grout can absorb spilled urine and other fluids, adding up over time to the stink. Deep clean and fix any grout cracks and moldy spots and you will see your bathroom freshen.
3. Empty Your Sink Trap
What you think might be a stinky poo smell might actually be your drain all gunked up and rotting. Twice a year, remove the sink drain trap. It is EASY to do, you don’t need to hire a plumber. Just unscrew it, remove the junk that fills it up, rinse it out and replace. This will help keep bathroom odors to a minimum
4. DIY Toilet Bombs
Speaking of essential oils, you can pair them with baking soda, water, and citric acid to make your own DIY toilet bombs to get rid of toilet odor.
The baking soda helps absorb and eliminate odors, the citric acid is a great antimicrobial, and of course, the essential oils add a pleasant scent to the family restroom.
They take several days to make, so be sure to double the recipe. At least at our house, we go through a bunch of them.
5. Create Your Own Poo-Pourri Toilet Spray
Have you heard of Poo-Pourri? It’s a spray that you use before you use the bathroom to help eliminate odors while you’re going #2. But, you can make your own copycat poo-pourri at home to save some money.
6. Keep That Toilet Brush Clean- The Easy Way
It’s no surprise that your toilet brush may be harboring some germs and odors. Fill your toilet brush holder with your favorite cleaner), and let your brush soak in that between uses.
7. Baking Soda As a Bathroom Deodorizer
Get a small jar and fill it with baking soda. This will help you eliminate odors. Baking soda is a natural scent absorber. AND the ph balance of the baking soda will also kill bacteria, so it serves a double purpose.
8. Get an Easy-to-Remove Toilet Seat
Terrible, awful, no good bathroom smells can hide in those tiny crevices that you don’t clean that often, particularly if you have boys in your home. Sorry, fellas, but it’s true.
Every now and then, remove the toilet seat to clean around those fittings. Seriously, this one trick makes a huge difference! You’ll be amazed.
9. TOWELS!! Get Rid of Stinky Towels
If your bathroom has a musty odor, it very well could be that your towels are the culprits. Cotton is TERRIFIC at absorbing water and drying us off, but unless towels are able to dry completely, they become breeding grounds for bacteria and mold. The solution? Wash them in hot water and add a cup of vinegar with a second rinse cycle. Vinegar will help kill the stink culprits and leave your towels soft and smelling fresh.
10. Matches Get Rid of Bathroom Odors
I first learned this hack from my mom. Whenever there was a doozy in the bathroom my mom would tell me to “light a match” and now that our older kids are teens, that is becoming a bathroom “battle cry” against the odors. “Did you light a match?”
Matches work. The striking of the match burns up the methane gasses in the room, helping the bathroom go back to fresh faster.
11. DIY Trashcan Deodorizer – Use Baking Soda
I’ve never met a trash can that couldn’t use a little freshening up. We use baking soda in the back of the fridge, in the kitchen pantry, and in the bathroom! Sprinkle some in the bottom of your trash can. Goodbye smelly bathroom (trash)!
12. Vinegar In The Toilet Tank Hack
Have you tried vinegar in the water tank? Pour in one cup, flush it a few times, and your toilet will smell fresh again. Do not allow the vinegar to sit in your tank for long periods, though.
13. Mop Out The Smell
Pair witch hazel with essential oils and purified water into your mop for a smelly odor knockout combination that doesn’t overpower your senses.
And finally, my friend swears that she could never get rid of that “boy smell” in her bathroom until she got a Steam Mop. It’s worth a try, right?
Just make sure that the oils you are using are safe for steaming. Our favorite is blending tea tree and lemon! Smells SO GOOD.
How To Keep Your Fridge Fresh:
- Set your fridge temperature to prevent bacteria growth, between 37-41 degrees Fahrenheit.
- Use airtight containers for leftovers.
- Label and date leftovers.
- Ensure good air circulation in the fridge by organizing storage and condensing packaging as you consume food.
- Evaluate your fridge on a weekly basis for food spoilage.
Your fridge is one of the hardest working appliances in your home. A clean fridge will not only make you feel better about storing your food, it makes food taste better and stay edible for a longer time.
While Aftermath Services doesn’t provide spring cleaning services such as cleaning out your fridge, if you are ever in a situation where the home or appliances present health dangers and biohazards, such as during a hoarding situation, call us at (877-872-4339) . for professional help.