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How To Use Your Sense of Smell To Keep You Safe

Our nose plays a critical role in keeping us healthy and safe from everyday dangers like gas leaks, smoke, and rotten foods. But unless you’re able to recognize the odor, you may have a hard time protecting yourself. That’s why it’s important to maintain a healthy sense of smell so you’re more quickly able to identify potential hazards and avert them before it’s too late.



As we get older our ability to smell starts to decline. In fact, by the age of 80, more than 75% of people show evidence of major smell impairment. The reason being that our olfactory neurons that detect odors gradually stop regenerating, and we have to work harder to smell the world around us. 

But there are proactive things you can do to counteract this inevitable decline. You can create scent memories, which you can access again and again, to help give you guidance and support as you age. 



In order to recognize a harmful odor, your nose (and brain) first has to have a scent memory of what’s good. This baseline of information will help trigger your brain to quickly recognize when something’s afoul. 

This means actively smelling every day. As odd as it seems, take time to regularly sniff (it only takes a second) your house as you enter, making a mental note of the smell. An especially important room is the kitchen where natural gas stoves are often used.    

By doing this exercise, what you’re doing is creating scent memories in your brain of what “good” odors are. Although they may not always be pleasant, these everyday odors aren’t dangerous as such. 



Now that you’ve established scent memories for normal everyday odors, you can train your brain to recognize common hazards. We may think we know what common dangers smell like, but it’s a good idea to take the time to safely and actively take a quick sniff. The refresher helps cement the odor print in the brain. And you’ll be glad you have that reference when you need it.  


Here are the 3 most common everyday dangers where smelling helps keep you safe:




Why can natural gas be dangerous: While natural gas is non-toxic, in high concentrations, it may cause dizziness or asphyxiation without warning. Natural gas vapors are lighter than air and will generally rise and dissipate. They may gather in confined spaces and travel to a source of ignition. Make sure to keep ignition sources like lighters and cigarettes away.


What does natural gas smell like: Natural gas is an efficient, safe, colorless and odorless gas. Because of this, a harmless chemical called mercaptan is added to purposefully give the gas a distinctive odor. Most people describe the smell like rotten eggs or hydrogen sulfide. It smells bad for a good reason - in case of a gas leak!


How to create a scent memory for natural gas: Using caution, and always keeping safety in mind, take a moment to quickly sniff the gas flame of your stove. Please DO NOT inhale or get too close to the flame, but rather briefly and quickly sniff from a distance only. Make a mental note of the smell. You are creating a scent memory. 


What to do if you have a poor (or no) sense of smell:  If you live in a home with a gas supply, it’s worth getting a natural gas detector installed. Also, if you live with people who have a good sense of smell, remind them to do a “sniff check” regularly. 




Why can smoke be dangerous: Inhaling smoke for a short time can cause immediate effects. Smoke is irritating to the eyes, nose, and throat, and its odor may be nauseating.


What does smoke smell like? Although the smell will depend on what’s burning, generally speaking, the smell is pungent, can be slightly metallic and generally is quite dry.  


How to create a scent memory for smoke: Using caution, and always keeping safety in mind, briefly light a candle and then extinguish it. Immediately sniff the air surrounding the candle. This is an easy example of creating a scent imprint of smoke smell in your brain.  


What to do if you have a poor (or no) sense of smell: It’s always good to install a smoke detector in your home. Since most devices are battery-operated, remember to replace batteries regularly to ensure proper functioning. And again, if you live with people who have a good sense of smell, remind them to do a “sniff check” regularly.  




Why can spoiled food be dangerous: Eating expired foods or foods that are past their best-by date can expose your body to harmful bacteria that can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and sometimes fever. When food is visibly spoiled, it has large bacterial colonies growing in it. This means that it has been exposed to conditions that are promoting bacterial growth. 


What does spoiled food smell like: Probably the most common spoiled food smell is milk. This odor is generally strong and pungent (fresh store-bought milk typically doesn’t have a smell).  As for rotten meat, the smell will vary by type of meat. But generally speaking, it actually smells slightly sweet, but also has a very aggressive, pungent smell. Some people say it smells like decaying flesh. Keep in mind that, like fresh fish, fresh meat shouldn't generally smell at all.

Generally speaking, even if you can’t be sure that your food has actually gone off, if you’re in doubt, just throw it out. 


How to create a scent memory for spoiled food: This is easy because you can simply smell your fresh food and drink every day. As you unpack your groceries from the store, and you start consuming the food, make an effort to take a quick sniff of what “fresh” smells like. When you first open your milk, take a quick sniff. You’re now creating a scent memory, and reference, for what “good” milk smells like. The same holds true for meat, poultry, and fish. Smell what’s fresh. Then you’ll learn what’s not. 


What to do if you have a poor (or no) sense of smell: Make sure you pay attention to “use-by” dates. If you only see a “sell-by” date, then try labeling the items with the date of when you opened the package. Also, if you live with people who have a good sense of smell, remind them to do a “sniff check” regularly.  


Please note that the above information is only a guideline and safety precautions should always be taken. If you believe you smell smoke, call the fire department. If you believe you smell a gas leak, call your gas company. If you believe you smell rotten meat or spoiled milk, throw it out. Your sense of smell can be a wonderful guide in helping you stay safe, but it’s not the only resource you should use.

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