COVID-19 & Loss of Smell: How Much Do You Know?

The overwhelming majority—approximately 86% of people—who have COVID-19 report either partial or total loss of their ability to smell. Experts aren’t yet entirely sure what causes this and why it differs from the usual causes of reduced ability to smell associated with seasonal upper respiratory infections. However, there are some interesting things we do know about this hallmark symptom of COVID-19.

What We Know About COVID & Loss of Smell

Besides complete loss of smell (anosmia), COVID can also cause the qualitative disturbance of smell and distortion of the perception of a smell. These are called dysosmia and parosmia respectively. Out of the 86% of people who experienced any of the three, nearly 55% had only mild cases of COVID-19. Why? It’s suspected that they have higher levels of antibodies that prevent the spread of COVID to the nose. 

In any case, loss of smell has become an early indicator of the likelihood of a severe case of COVID. And although it mainly seems to affect individuals with mild COVID cases, the impact can still be far-reaching. Dr. Carolyn Word of the Charleston Allergy & Asthma team is one example of this. 

More than 60 days after her bout with the virus, she still had not fully recovered her sense of smell. She said, “For example, if I’m standing right over the stove, I can smell bacon but not the smell wafting through the house. I can’t detect smells in the ambient air; they have to be physically under my nose. But a month ago, I couldn’t smell anything right under my nose so I’m hopeful that this is a sign that I’ll continue to improve.”

Thousands of people have had similar experiences. While most recover their sense of smell within 3 weeks and certainly before the 60-day mark, not all are so fortunate. In one study, close to 25% of affected people suffered from loss of smell for more than 60 days and 5% for 6 months. And only time will tell if this could be a permanent issue for some. 

Loss of Smell: Why So Worrisome?

At first, loss of smell may not seem as serious as loss of sight or other senses. Yet, in reality, our sense of smell plays a huge role in daily living. For example, it can help us protect ourselves, alerting us to dangers such as fires and fumes. And besides emergencies, it’s also critical to maintaining a positive mental state. 

Especially for those with pre-existing mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety, it can be devastating not to be able to enjoy simple pleasures such as the smell of a favorite meal or other enjoyable, comforting fragrances. 

“One of the most difficult parts of losing my smell was missing out on the many things I find comforting,” said Dr. Word. “Any mom can likely relate, but not being able to pull my kids into a hug and smell them was heartbreaking. It was very eye-opening to sense how often a I rely on smell in my day-to-day, not just for going about everyday chores or tasks, but the joy and comfort that it can bring.”

Given these serious implications, you may wonder what can help those suffering from partial or total loss of smell due to COVID-19?

Treatment Options For Loss of Smell

Outside of waiting for your sense of smell to return on its own, there are a few things that can help it along. Some research suggests that topical steroids and certain supplements may help; these are options you may wish to discuss with your healthcare provider. 

Additionally, olfactory training (also known as smell therapy) is also an option. It involves a routine of smelling various scents and then reflecting on and visualizing what each one actually smells like. It’s thought that this combination of recognizable smells and visualization helps retrain the pathways to the brain and can speed up recovery from loss of smell. 

We are hopeful that as researchers and doctors continue to learn more about COVID-19, new forms of treatment and advancements in medicine will follow to provide more answers for the virus’ symptoms.