Your schnoz doesn't age well under any circumstances: By age 65, about half of people experience a measurable reduction in their ability to smell. The whiffs you take now can speed up or slow down that process.
Prolonged exposure to rank odors (think freeway fumes or curbside trash) can hammer away at olfactory cells, sometimes causing permanent damage, says Alan Hirsch, M.D., director of the Smell & Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. Stinks are especially prevalent these days, as over half of the U.S. population lives in areas where air pollution levels are dangerously high.
Another nose enemy: head trauma. Bangs you'd get from, say, a bad fall or contact sports can tear the nerves that connect your nose to your brain and permanently destroy your smelling skills.
The loss can mess with your sense of taste, since the two are intimately linked and work in tandem to help you perceive flavor. It can also impair your ability to ID threats such as rotting food or secondhand smoke.
Wondering what it's like to live without being able to smell? Erin Napoleone, 31, from Havre de Grace, Maryland told Women's Health her story:
As a teen, I was in a car accident. A few days later, I watched my father make homemade tomato sauce—but I didn't smell a thing. Then I couldn't detect my mom's familiar perfume. A head CT scan confirmed my sense of smell was gone for good.
I sometimes get nervous about body odor; I shower a lot and use extra deodorant. When I cook, I can't leave the kitchen if something's on the stove in case it burns. I've installed extra gas and radon detectors throughout the house.
When eating, textures are so much more important to me now. My favorite treat is a dark chocolate bar with cayenne pepper, sea salt, and Pop Rocks. I can't pick up on all the flavors, but the heat tickles my throat, and the Pop Rocks explode in my mouth.
Reduce Your Risk
Take a Breather. Pick three natural scents (for example, a flower, an orange, and a cup of joe) and give each one a deep sniff up to six times a day. By exercising your smell receptors, you may forge new nose-to-brain pathways.
Wrap It Up. When you must be around a stench for longer than a few minutes, fold a scarf over your nose and mouth to filter out most of the reek.
Rethink Zinc. Eating enough of the mineral is crucial to your sense of smell, so nibble at least eight milligrams of zinc-rich foods daily (get it from a three-ounce serving of lean beef or eight ounces of crab). Shortcuts can backfire—OTC zinc nasal sprays have been linked to immediate and long-lasting scent loss. Stay away!
For more on what it's like to live without your senses, pick up the October 2015 issue of Women's Health, on newsstands now.