Nearly 80% of those who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 experience olfactory loss, or smell loss, according to Dr. Michael Jacobson, an otolaryngologist with Hampton Roads ENT.
“It’s one of the most important early signals that you might have COVID[-19],” he said.
The way the human sense of smell works is through a nerve called the olfactory nerve located at the base of the brain. This nerve sends messages to the brain when hair cells from the olfactory epithelium, a special tissue inside the nasal cavity, interacts with odorants.
When the coronavirus attacks the sense of smell, there is no direct damage to the olfactory nerve but to the supporting cells that keep it healthy.
“What’s fascinating about COVID-19 smell loss is that it tends to be rapid, but it also tends to heal quickly, which is different from most viruses that can damage the human sense of smell,” Jacobson said.
“So most COVID[-19] patients who lose their sense of taste and smell lose it relatively quickly and they’ll usually get it back within a few weeks to a month,” he added.
But here’s the difference: Some people who have since tested negative for the virus weeks after having it are still experiencing a loss or change of smell. The complete loss of smell is called anosmia. A reduced sense of smell is called hyposmia.
Some even experience a distorted sense of smell called parosmia. For example, your morning coffee suddenly smells foul and acidic.
And then there’s phantosmia, when a person experiences smells that aren’t even there, and according to Jacobson, those phantom odors are hardly the pleasant kind.
“Some people will have the smell of rotten eggs, or rotten flesh or sewage stuck up their nose, and they’ll swear there’s something up there but there isn’t,” he said.
But not being able to smell correctly is more crippling than one might think.
“A majority of what we enjoy comes from smell. The sense of smell is one of the most important drivers of how humans taste food and enjoy their drink,” Jacobson said. “Smell is also a warning sign for disaster, like a fire, or rotten food, or a gas leak.”
Not all hope is loss for those experiencing these symptoms. Jacobson said it’s important to talk to your doctor first if you’re suffering from a loss or change in smell.
Some methods of recovery include smell retraining, a neuro behavioral treatment involving items with strong memories scents, and nasal washes.
To view other sources for smell loss, check out the website for the American Academy of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery.
The Monell Chemical Senses Center and Temple University are also evaluating smell test to rapidly assess people’s sense of smell, a tool for COVID-19 surveillance. They are currently seeking participants all across the country who are experiencing a variety of smell disturbances to assess the rapid smell test.
Support groups are also available online for people with smell loss. AbScent, a charity based out of England and Wales, for people experiencing smell loss, has a Facebook support group. Click here to check out the page.
And with COVID-19 vaccines *now available to most age groups, Jacobson also recommends getting vaccinated to protect yourself from the virus.