Above: covid:aid spoke to Abscent's Sarah Oakley for a Community-hosted Live Q&A
HOW DO YOU TREAT THEM?
There are no medical treatments or medicines for smell disorders at present. Instead, our bodies just need time to heal.
However, research shows that smell training can help. Smell training involves taking a sample of a familiar fragrance, like lavender, holding it to your nose for two sniffs and repeating the process twice a day for three or four months. It is a simple but slow process. Nevertheless, it can speed up recovery time by one third if practised regularly.
Sarah Oakley, the executive director of AbScent, a UK charity that supports people with smelling disorders, explains that the chosen scent doesn’t have to be expensive. She suggests using a strong smelling shampoo because when we think about the action of washing our hair while we sniff, we are “strengthening the pathway between the nose and the brain, meaning you will recover your sense of smell more quickly.”
Peer support is another thing that can help to deal with the alienation caused by smell disorders. “It’s quite life changing really,” Sarah explained to us. “When you can’t taste anything and when you can’t smell anything, you don’t interact with people in the same way because you’re not picking up on the same signals as them.” It’s important for this reason to connect with other people who are experiencing the same thing. AbScent provides various support networks and Facebook groups you can join on their website.
HOW LONG WILL IT LAST?
Over 70% of people that lose their sense of smell and taste from Covid will get it back within a month. But for the remaining 30% it could become a long term issue or get worse. This is because the virus attacks the sustentacular cells which support the olfactory neurons (smell receptors) in our noses – thus affecting our ability to smell. The good news is that these cells are designed to grow back, but the healing process takes time. For some, this could mean their smell returning after six to twelve months; for others it may take two or three years.
What happens next for those who have had Covid-19 is that when their sustentacular cells start to regrow, the parosmia (distorted sense of smell which causes nausea) begins. This is because the new, younger cells are learning and adapting to different smells which results in previously enjoyed smells like coffee – now unfamiliar to the cells – triggering an intense disgust response in the body. Fortunately, this severe kind of parosmia won’t last forever but it can be difficult to deal with for a time.
It’s important to remember that your sense of smell could vary, and this is very common after a Covid infection. As Sarah says, ‘Recovery doesn’t happen in a straight line […] you’re going to have some good days and some bad days. But fluctuations are a normal part of the experience.”
WHAT TO DO IF A SMELL OR TASTE DISORDER AFFECTS YOUR APPETITE?
It’s possible that a loss in taste or smell can affect our appetites. The advice if this happens is to try to focus on other aspects of the food we might enjoy. Paying attention to the temperature, texture, or colours on the plate helps to stimulate our senses during a meal and will encourage us to take in enough calories each day. If you find that certain smells are making you nauseous, try to understand what the triggers are: start with bland foods like bread or pasta and eat smaller portions sizes to gently build up an appetite.
As time goes on and our smells and tastes return, we can begin to reintroduce more foods into our diets. The main thing is to be aware of your own body and your own responses.
For more information on this topic, please listen to our live Q&A with Sarah Oakley from AbScent or find the resources listed below. If you have more questions or would like support in relation to Covid-19 or Long Covid, please join the covid:aid Support Community where we share advice, information and support on a range of subjects.