Covid-19 caused millions to lose their sense of smell, long after contracting the disease. Having joined their number, Catherine Morgan looks for solutions.

I had never truly appreciated my sense of smell and taste until they both disappeared after a bout of covid-19 last year.

Thankfully, my other symptoms were relatively mild, but the total loss of smell (anosmia) and taste (ageusia) was at best unsettling, and at worst distressing, mainly because I feared they would never return.

The odds of a full recovery are good, however, with one study reporting that 75-80% of people had regained their taste and smell at two months after infection, and 95% had done so at the six month mark.

My own research — i.e., interrogating recoverees for an exact timeline — yielded similar results: most people regained their senses, eventually, although a small minority did report ongoing issues a year after infection.

Of course, taste and smell disorders were around long before covid-19 swept the globe; and there are many other causes such as other viruses, certain medications or chemicals, head trauma, allergies, nasal polyps, radiation therapy and genetic disorders.

But SARS-CoV-2 has certainly brought them into the spotlight.

For me, this experience has been an emotional rollercoaster

Loss of smell

UK charity AbScent, which funds research that supports those experiencing smell loss, has seen its community grow from 1,500 members pre-pandemic to more than 76,000: all of whom are seeking advice and support.

Founder Chris Kelly told Optimum Nutrition: “Loss of smell can have profound effects on quality of life.

“Far from being simply a problem of not being able to taste food, smell loss touches our feelings of wellbeing, social relationships, intimate relationships, and can give rise to depression, anxiety [and] feelings of loneliness.”

I can certainly relate. Food became non-descript and bland and there was little joy in eating. Worse still, I felt strangely disconnected from the world — an empty space of nothingness stuck between me and my surroundings.

Scents I once took for granted — my children, the woods, fresh air — were gone, and life felt a lot duller for it.

It was hard for others to understand, and I laughed along with friends when they joked about giving me the cheaper wine; but in all honesty, it was difficult emotionally.

Of course, there’s the obvious safety aspect too: without our sense of taste or smell we are unable to detect a fire, gas leak, or spoiled food.

Plus it can lead to poor appetite and less healthy dietary choices, increasing our risk of nutrient deficiencies and malnutrition.

Parosmia and phantosmia

Around six weeks in, my sensory loss morphed into something even more distressing: phantosmia.

As the name suggests, this is when people smell something that isn’t there — for me, a repulsive combination of petrol, cigarette smoke and burnt rubber, which filled my senses almost 24/7 and triggered a constant headache and general anxiety.

Others may experience a similar but distinguishable condition called parosmia, in which smells become distorted — the once pleasant aroma of fresh coffee may transform into an intolerable smell of sewage or rotting meat, for example.

Whilst this can be very hard to cope with, studies suggest that smell distortion could signal the body’s attempt at cellular regeneration, and therefore indicate gradual recovery and a positive clinical outcome.

And this was true in my case; after a very difficult couple of months, my taste and smell did start to return — albeit gradually.

Smell training

Whilst there is no magic cure for smell disorders, there is some evidence to suggest that smell retraining therapy — i.e. repeated short term exposure (around 10 to 20 seconds) to at least four scents twice daily for several months — may be helpful.

Traditionally, clove, rose, lemon and eucalyptus have been used, but other items such as mint, nutmeg, orange rind, ground coffee, coconut and vanilla can be used too.

On its website, smell and taste loss charity Fifth Sense recommends using familiar smells that are associated with memories; and points out that it isn’t just the formal training that matters, writing: “When you eat an orange, use your senses of touch and sight to help you to recall memories. When you go for a walk, enjoy the breeze and look at the detail of the flowers whilst you take a sniff”.

Research suggests smell training may stimulate the turnover of specialised nerve cells to help restore smell function, and boost cognitive processing of the incomplete sensory information in those with parosmia.

Useful guides to smell training can be found on the AbScent and Fifth Sense websites.

Also, remind yourself that symptoms are most likely to be temporary but don’t be afraid to seek professional support.

For me, this experience has been an emotional rollercoaster. I still haven’t fully recovered my sense of taste and smell, but I’m getting there — and there’s one thing for certain: I will never take them for granted again.

What to do if you've lost your sense of smell:

  • Focus on your other senses, and recall food memories, when eating.
  • Eat an anti-inflammatory diet.
  • Check expiry dates so you don’t eat food that has gone off.
  • Experiment with different temperatures, herbs, spices and other flavours.
  • Avoid trigger foods if you have parosmia (distorted sense of smell).
  • If all food loses its appeal, try nutrient-dense smoothies for a while.
  • If you’re struggling to eat a balanced diet, consider using supplements or seeking help from a nutritional therapist.

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