How Temperature Affects our Sense of Smell


Scent plays an important role in our lives. A distinctive smell can promote happiness, inspire our imaginations and bring memories to the forefront of our minds. With that in mind, the mechanisms behind our sense of smell can be both intriguing and important. Today, I’m concerned with understanding how temperature affects this vital sense.

Before we can begin, it’s important to possess a simple understanding of how our sense of smell works. When an odour or fragrance reaches you, small molecules are taken in via the nose where they are interpreted by olfactory receptors. The more molecules in the air, the stronger the smell.

That brings me onto my first point concerning temperature and our sense of smell. These molecules, released by just about everything on the planet to differing extents at differing temperatures, have been proven to be released in larger concentrations at higher temperatures. This is, in part, why spring seems so fragrant; all of those fresh flowers wouldn’t carry much of a smell at all in freezing conditions. While that doesn’t technically affect our sense of smell, it does play a large part in deciding what odours we encounter.

On a related note, it is widely known that winter air is drier than during the summer months. The extra humidity in warmer weather makes the air more efficient at capturing small molecules and carrying them towards us.

As a result of the two factors listed above, fragrances will seem stronger in warmer climates because, well, they are. There are literally more molecules of that substance in the air.

Having said that, our own biology certainly affects our ability to detect smells in colder conditions, as research has proven that our olfactory receptors are much more efficient in warmer environments. This is likely in large part down to the way that pretty much everything, including vessels and receptors within our own body, contract as temperatures drop.

So there you have it. Cold climates do have a pronounced affect on our ability to smell, but it’s not all down to us. Sure, were not quite as good at detecting smells as temperatures approach freezing, but that’s to be expected when there are so few of them to be found, comparatively speaking.


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Last modified: 14th March 2019