Loss of smell and COVID-19

woman holding while smelling yellow and green flower

Loss of smell, also known as anosmia by medical practitioners is estimated to affect two thirds of patients with COVID-19 infection. This effect may not only affect you during active infection, but some have also been known to last for up to 6 months to a year. Studies have found that the loss of taste and smell, also known as olfactory impairment is a common symptom of COVID-19, sometimes affecting upwards of 50% of patients. It can seriously affect quality of life as our sense of smell is related closely with our taste. Apart from not being able to taste our favorite food and and smell our coffee in the morning, this can be dangerous as unwillingly you may eat spoiled food, or even more serious things like not being able to smell a gas leak or smoke in your home.

However, this is not all bad news. Studies done have shown that the acute infection has the worst loss of taste and smell. Results from this study also showed that both sexes, male and female were affected the same, and also that there was no difference in how bad the sense of smell changed when comparing younger and older patients. It also appears that the loss of sense of smell is usually regained in the time period of 6 months, with most infected patients regaining their sense of smell and taste within two weeks.

The process that involved in the loss of smell in COVID-19 patients is thought to be temporary destruction of special cells in the nose known as olfactory cells. They are not nerve cells, but act as receptors that then relay information on what we are currently smelling to the brain. Another suggested theory is that the loss of smell is due to the nasal congestion with cold-like symptoms you may experience with a respiratory tract infection such as COVID-19. As many of us would be familiar with when experiencing the “flu”, or having a “runny nose”, our sense of taste and smell also gets affected due to the increased nasal secretions, or mucous, that affect these sensitive smell receptors.

Now, if you are one of the many people who have had their taste and smell affected by COVID-19 there are some things you can do.

1. Simply Wait

Many COVID-19 patients have found that their sense of taste and smell returns after two weeks. While it is frustrating to lose such important senses, it has proven to be a waiting game for many patients. If you happen to suddenly lose your sense of smell and taste, it would be wise to be screened for COVID-19 as it is a well established early symptom of a COVID-19 infection.

2. Smell Training

Smell training is a technique used by specialist clinics to help patients with anosmia regain their sense of smell. In smell therapy, patients are encouraged to sniff a selection of everyday items with clear and distinct aromas including coffee, mint, and rose essence, coconut, chocolate. They are asked to identify and differentiate between them to help them ‘relearn’ smells. Some patients have total loss of smell (anosmia); others cannot differentiate between different smells. These items should be smelled gently, and not sniffed too hard to allow yourself to register what it is your smelling. After a break of a few minutes, move to the next smell, repeating the technique. allowing yourself the time to smell the item properly. The everyday items should also be ones with distinct and recognisable smells, such as the ones suggested earlier.

3. Nasal Rinsing

Nasal rinsing, or irrigation, usually with a saline (saltwater) solution is a common practice used to decongest the nose in other disease, such as chronic sinusitis. Another option may be nasal decongestants, such as steroid sprays but these have been shown to have no added benefit in studies. While studies on what saline or steroid sprays do for the olfactory dysfunction caused by COVID-19 are still in progress, rinsing with a saltwater solution can prove to be a helpful, cost effective method of regaining a sense of smell. If you wish to use steroid based sprays, it is important to consult with a doctor or a pharmacist first. There are readily made salt solutions available as nasal sprays at pharmacies, but if you wish it is possible to make one at home:

  1. Boil about 400mls of water, then leave it to cool.
  2. Mix a teaspoon of salt and a teaspoon of baking soda (bicarbonate of soda) into the water.
  3. Wash your hands.
  4. Stand over a sink, cup the palm of 1 hand and pour a small amount of the solution into it.
  5. Sniff some of the solution up 1 nostril at a time and let it run out of your nose. It might help to hold your other nostril closed with your finger as you sniff.
  6. Repeat these steps a few times to see if it helps.

You do not need to use all of the solution, but make a fresh batch each day – do not reuse any left over from the day before.

Right now, with COVID-19 being such a difficult disease to diagnose, the loss of taste and smell can be a telltale sign that you may be experiencing a COVID-19 infection. This can be used to our advantage as if you happen to lose your smell or taste without any other symptoms this should prompt you to self-report and get tested for COVID-19.

References:

1.     https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7488171/

2.     https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/lost-or-changed-sense-smell/

3.     https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/929116

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