Health

This Is Your Sense Of Smell On COVID

“My beloved Jo Malone lime, basil, & mandarin perfume now just smells like a very expensive pot of pesto.”

A woman with natural curly hair smells a flower. Here's what covid does to your sense of smell.
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Among all the other symptoms of mild COVID-19 — exhaustion, coughs, fevers — one has stood out as the weirdest: losing your sense of smell. Anosmia, as it's called, turns out to be a pretty common side effect of COVID. For around one in six people with COVID, loss or change in sense of smell might be their only symptom of COVID, according to a study published in Rhinology in June. It's also thought to be behind a rash of people complaining online that their Yankee Candles had "no smell".

"Oftentimes during an infection there can be temporary loss of taste or smell due to inflammation and swelling in the nasal passages, which improves within weeks of the infection going away," Dr. Tania Elliott M.D., allergy and infectious disease doctor at NYU Langone Health, tells Bustle. If you've had severe COVID-19, your loss of smell might be more intense and long-lasting; an Iranian study published in International Forum Of Allergy & Rhinology in April found 59 out of 60 hospitalized COVID-19 patients had significant smell problems.

COVID doesn't just cause smell loss. According to a study published in Rhinology, some people also experience parosmia, where their sense of smell is distorted or in some way impaired, months after their initial COVID diagnosis. You might smell weird odors that don't seem to be really there, like fish or sulfur, or only pick up on bits of a smell.

"I had COVID in mid-September," Jill, 42, tells Bustle. "I had no sense of taste or smell, and my smell is still not quite right; it’s like I can only smell parts of a smell, if that makes sense. So my beloved Jo Malone lime, basil, and mandarin perfume now just smells like a very expensive pot of pesto."

How Long Does COVID-Related Loss Of Smell Last?

The British Medical Journal says parosmia and anosmia are both common side effects of viral illnesses, including COVID, but while COVID-related coughs might disappear quickly, problems with smell could stick around for months.

"More than two-thirds of patients tend to recover their sense of taste and smell within three weeks," Dr. Omid Mehdizadeh M.D., otolaryngologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center, tells Bustle. A study of 382 COVID patients with smell loss published in Journal of Otolaryngology in May found that 79% of them recovered significantly in a month. But long-haul smell loss is definitely not uncommon. In one study published in Frontiers In Medicine in November, 20% of patients showed no improvement in their ability to smell two months after they were first treated, and tended to have experienced more severe COVID-19.

If you have parosmia, it might take a slightly longer time to clear up. According to a study in Rhinology in December, 43% of patients reported parosmia after they were diagnosed, and it took around two and a half months for symptoms to go away, though some people still felt their smell wasn't quite right after six months.

Why Does COVID Mess With Your Sense Of Smell?

Scientists don't know why COVID-related smell and taste problems stick around for so long in some people. Dr. Kathleen Jordan M.D., a doctor with Tia Health, tells Bustle that it's unclear whether there might be damage to the chemosensors, the special cells in your nose and mouth that translate substances, like salt or smoke, into signals to the brain. She says COVID could also have caused lasting problems for neural pathways that help interpret smells, or to the functional tissue of your brain. "More studies are needed to identify the prognosis, the reason why, and the best interventions."

If you're still experiencing problems with your taste and smell months after infection, it's not yet known when or if they might clear up. "It is too soon to tell if these changes will be permanent," Dr. Elliott says. Various smell therapies designed for post-viral anosmia in general could be useful. There's currently a clinical trial in development to see if exposure to strong smells could help people with post-COVID smell loss. For now, though, the best cure could be more time.

Experts:

Dr. Tania Elliot M.D.

Dr. Kathleen Jordan M.D.

Dr. Omid Mehdizadeh M.D.

Studies cited:

Lechien, J. R., Chiesa-Estomba, C. M., Beckers, E., Mustin, V., Ducarme, M., Journe, F., Marchant, A., Jouffe, L., Barillari, M. R., Cammaroto, G., Circiu, M. P., Hans, S., & Saussez, S. (2021). Prevalence and 6-month recovery of olfactory dysfunction: a multicentre study of 1363 COVID-19 patients. Journal of internal medicine, 10.1111/joim.13209. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1111/joim.13209

Lechien, J. R., Journe, F., Hans, S., Chiesa-Estomba, C. M., Mustin, V., Beckers, E., Vaira, L. A., De Riu, G., Hopkins, C., & Saussez, S. (2020). Severity of Anosmia as an Early Symptom of COVID-19 Infection May Predict Lasting Loss of Smell. Frontiers in medicine, 7, 582802. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmed.2020.582802

Hopkins, C., Surda, P., & Kumar, N. (2020). Presentation of new onset anosmia during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rhinology, 58(3), 295–298. https://doi.org/10.4193/Rhin20.116

Hopkins, C., Surda, P., Vaira, L. A., Lechien, J. R., Safarian, M., Saussez, S., & Kumar, N. (2020). Six month follow-up of self-reported loss of smell during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rhinology, 10.4193/Rhin20.544. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.4193/Rhin20.544

Hopkins, C., Surda, P., Whitehead, E. et al. (2020) Early recovery following new onset anosmia during the COVID-19 pandemic – an observational cohort study. J of Otolaryngol - Head & Neck Surg49, 26. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40463-020-00423-8