Coronavirus: Targeted ‘smell therapy’ helps some COVID-19 patients regain sense of smell, taste

Recovering COVID-19 patients grappling with long-term loss of taste and smell appear to benefit from targeted aromatherapy intended to re-wire the brain’s olfactory receptors.

Because no large-scale, long-term studies have been completed, the evidence supporting the tactic remains anecdotal, but medical experts see promise in the approach and no discernible downside, multiple media outlets reported.

Often referred to as “smell therapy” or “smell training,” the repetitive practice involves sniffing several potent scents twice daily to stimulate and restore the body’s olfactory functions compromised by the coronavirus, The New York Times reported.

“It’s not a quick fix. You have to keep up with it,” Chrissi Kelly, a member of the Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research and the founder of AbScent, a global nonprofit smell disorder support and educational organization based in England and Wales, told the Times.

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Dr. Mahar Abu-Hamdan, an ear, nose and throat specialist in St. Joseph County, Indiana, told WSBT that 90% of COVID-19 patients who lose their sense and smell and taste regain them without aid within six months.

Meanwhile, the lingering nature of the common – and often long-term – COVID-19 side effect results in a sense of desperation among patients.

“People usually show up in tears of frustration. There’s a huge quality of life impact that’s very real,” Dr. Sunthosh Sivam, an ear, nose and throat specialist at Baylor College of Medicine, told KTRK, noting everyday prompts such as smoke and even dirty diapers can disappear from a patient’s life, fueling the sense of helplessness.

“A lot of us have heard how powerful smell can be in triggering memories and things like that, so we are taking advantage of those ties,” he said.

Essential oils – in strong scents such as lemon, rose, eucalyptus and cloves – have proved a popular and effective avenue for many patients attempting to rewire their olfactory system, Sivam told KTRK, especially when the “smell therapy” is coupled with recalling good memories.

Specifically, he suggested the following steps:

• Find a quiet spot

• Choose one scent to put on a cotton ball in a jar

• Waft the scent to your nose

• Think about memories of that smell that make you happy

• Repeat with one scent for 15 to 20 seconds in the morning and evening for one month

“I don’t know that anyone knows or could tell you exactly why smell training works, but I think those are some of our thoughts on why it works, so we are just trying to tie those scents to those memories,” Sivam said.

Loss of smell is not the only issue, however, with the increasing post-COVID-19 prevalence of a disorder called parosmia, which causes previously normal aromas to develop new, often unpleasant, odors.

Pamela Dalton, a faculty member at the Monell Chemical Senses Center, a nonprofit research institute in Philadelphia, told the Times that the parosmia appears to occur when the neural pathways connecting the nose and brain are disrupted, “kind of like a telephone operator from the 1950s connecting the wrong party to another line.”

Sivam cautioned, however, that despite the pandemic-related boost in reported smell dysfunctions, not all seemingly post-COVID-19 olfactory issues are necessarily linked to the virus. He recounted for the Times a recent encounter with a patient whose issue was actually linked to inflammatory nasal polyps that, once removed, improved.

“Seeing an E.N.T. is a good way to make sure nothing else is missed,” Sivam told the Times.

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