How do I deal after I lost my sense of smell due to COVID

Two and a half years ago my nose stopped working.

That’s when I realized how often the scent appears in everyday conversation: “That Uber smelled weird,” or “That woman was wearing a lot of perfume,” or “Someone is smoking weed next door for sure.”

I suffer from anosmia, a symptom of a prolonged COVID illness. I caught the virus early in the pandemic and had horrific symptoms, but after a week of bed rest, I was ready to resume my life. It was not my nose.

With the epidemic now entering its third year, loss of smell – once a mysterious problem – is becoming increasingly prevalent.

Roughly 5% of people who experienced a loss of smell during COVID-19 will develop long-term anosmia, according to Dr. Bradley J. Goldstein, MD, an ear, nose, and throat doctor at Duke University Hospital.

The effect is more severe than most people realize.

“The sense of smell is one of our major sensory systems that constantly provides information about our environment, about the world around us, to the brain,” Goldstein said. “A lot of it happens to us passively. We don’t always intentionally think about sniffing, but we constantly get a lot of input.”

I’m now a freshman in college, and I have no idea what campus smells like. I am always afraid that I will smell bad, that the food I am going to eat is spoiled or that my dwelling may be on fire. I can’t remember the last thing I smelled.

“We tend to rely on seeing and hearing maybe a little more directly, but smell is still a really important sensory system. When it doesn’t work, people really realize there’s something missing,” Goldstein said.

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Persuasive storytelling presentation from the Los Angeles Times.

People like to tell me that having a dysfunctional nose can be a good thing sometimes. And sure enough, I could cook broccoli in my studio apartment and use public restrooms without gagging. I wasn’t bothered during a 14 hour drive from North Carolina to Louisiana with four boys (and orders from Moe’s Southwest Grill).

But there are other times. Like a gas leak in my condo building – oblivious to the smell, watching TV, when RA pounded on my door and I was shocked to find I didn’t actually evacuate.

The sudden increase in the number of patients who lost their sense of smell had a big impact on smell researchers as well.

“It has really changed the lives of many scent researchers who were doing something else and are now studying the effects of COVID,” said Dr. Danielle R. Read, associate director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

“It was really amazing to suddenly be the center of attention worldwide.”

Read and her colleagues knew before the pandemic that viral infections could cause a loss of smell, but there wasn’t much interest in how and why. Now, answering these questions is critical — and the researchers have been thrown into the spotlight.

Early on, Reed’s lab developed a test to try to standardize olfactory diagnoses in doctors’ offices. Patients are asked to identify odors on a sheet, evaluate their intensity, and attempt to identify them. This way patients can know the severity of their condition, and their doctors can easily measure improvement.

The lab is now working on taking cells from tissues in the nasal cavity and culturing them in a petri dish. They plan to expose these cells to SARS-CoV-2 and other viruses to see why COVID-19 has a unique effect on smell.

There are biological processes that we are working to understand. “If we can understand it, we can hope to correct it,” she said.

Researchers in Goldstein’s lab have done similar work. Starting in 2020, they began taking nasal tissue biopsies in patients with post-COVID anemia to see if they could reveal the reason for the loss of smell.

“We are still learning more about what exactly is damaged or where exactly the damage is,” he said.

Other researchers are still studying how the virus attacks the olfactory nerve, which transmits the sense of smell to the brain.

As researchers search for a cure, the Internet has been filled with suggestions – sometimes well-intentioned, but often ineffective.

People love to tell me about the latest treat they’ve seen on TikTok. I’ve tried them all: the burning orange trick, the back of the head clicking trick, aromatherapy with essential oils and a daily nasal steroid. I went to Goldstein’s clinic for a smell recognition test and a nasal endoscopy.

So far, there is no cure.

But there are ways to cope.

Early on, I would smile and nod when people who didn’t know about my loss of smell would ask me things, like confirming that their Bed Bath & Beyond candle smelled good. I was embarrassed to tell them that I really didn’t know. Like it somehow made me look less.

“Oh crap, I’m sorry,” my father began to say every time he instinctively commented on a passing scent.

But I really like it when people talk about ambient scents.

I’ll say, “It’s okay, just describe it to me.”

I want to know that the Subway sandwich shop across the street from my apartment still smells of warm, strangely sweet bread. Or the pasta my sister ordered for dinner makes the whole table smell like truffles.

Sometimes when I enter a restaurant or store for the first time, I say out loud, “What is that smell?” Just in case someone has someone to tell me about. I don’t want to leave.

(Camilo Huenca/For The Times)

I have learned that the English language lacks descriptors of smell. Most of the time, people default to ‘good’ or ‘bad’.

If they were really trying, people would add “y” at the end of another word. earthy. Mint LLC. fruity. This is better than “good”, but still hard for me to wrap my head around. (Tropical fruit and cranberry fruit are two very distinct scents – that’s what I remember.)

At some point, I started saying “compare the smell to something” rather than “describe it”. It’s easier for me to imagine the smell when someone likens it to, say, a wet dog or strawberry Jell-O.

My good friends understand the need to say that the bakeries we pass smell like caramelized sugar, and that the college parties we attend smell like sweaty boys and old beer. These are the scents I know.

Fortunately, my sense of taste was not significantly affected. I’ve done blind taste tests with different flavors of potato chips to confirm this.

Anyone can taste with a dysfunctional nose, Goldstein said. Sensations from taste buds in the mouth are just one part of the way we experience flavor. Oral sensations from sensory nerves and airborne substances that find their way into the olfactory cells in the nose “give you a lot of information about the chemical qualities of food,” Goldstein said.

“If someone completely loses their sense of smell, they lose a lot of that input,” he said. “Yes, they can still taste salty or they can still taste bitter or bitter, but some other qualities mediated by the olfactory sensation are somewhat missing.”

In my case, even though I’m sure my palate is less palatable than it was before I contracted COVID-19, experimenting with food never became a chore. I’ve never had to rely on texture more than flavor or immersing my food in hot sauce to feel something.

This type of loss is just one of the additional problems some people who have lost their sense of smell deal with. For some, Reed said, the effect can include depression and anxiety.

“No one really wants to talk about the mental health aspect of it,” she said. “But that’s definitely something that comes up over and over again.”

Chrissy Kelly, now an advocate for the treatment of smell disorders in Britain, lost her scent after sinusitis in 2012. Soon after, she began experiencing severe depressive effects.

“I wasn’t ready for it and didn’t really know where to turn for advice,” Kelly said. “It really changed my life. It was just a very dark time for me.”

Kelly founded Absent Soon after her diagnosis, when loss of smell was not well known. The organization, which provides support and information to those affected by smell disorders, has seen rapid growth with the onset of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, it had about 1,500 members; Now it serves more than 85,000 people around the world.

Kelly found that explaining the condition to those who were not affected was one of the most challenging parts of advocacy.

“You don’t even know where to start,” she said. “I think the reason is that smell is an essential component of all living things. Thus, imagining life without it is unimaginable. It is like saying, ‘Well, I want you to imagine a life without gravity.’” Or how about imagining your life without time? “

It was hard to describe, she said, “how weird it is and how suffocating it is.”

“Recovery is messy,” Kelly tells AbScent members. Loss of smell can change from day to day and requires patience. In her case, recovery took eight years.

For me, I’ll catch a whiff of here and there. A hint of my dog’s food when I pour her into her bowl or a whisper of smoke from a passing cigarette.

I can’t tell if it’s fake odors. But they make me optimistic.

Recently, I was sitting in bed with my computer when something caused my nose to wrinkle. I ignored it at first. Then I remembered two slices of bread I had put in the toaster 15 minutes earlier.

When I entered the kitchen, I found two charred, smoky boxes. After a few swear words, while the slices were tossed in the trash, I gasped audibly.

I didn’t jump out of bed because I saw burnt bread. I did not hear the sound of the device. I smelled smoke. Or visualize it with some other well-developed sixth sense.

Either way, I was most excited about the burnt toast.

Illustration by Camilo Huenca for The Times.

(Camilo Huenca/For The Times.)

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