Twice a day every day for weeks, Lauryn Hunter, 32, of Stanton, VA, brought out her “smell basket” and one by one took a good long whiff of the few strongly scented bottles inside. She was olfactory training, also called smell training, a practice that theoretically sharpens the nose’s ability to do its job. Her anosmia (aka smell loss) was the only lingering symptom from her bout of COVID-19 — the fever and body aches let up around day six — and she was eager to get it back. So when a former coworker mentioned the term, she headed to Google and gave it a shot.
For Hunter, her training worked around the seventh week. At least it’s her hunch that it worked. According to a study published in JAMA, 89 percent of COVID patients with smell impairment reported seeing at least an improvement in severity at the four week mark, so it’s possible her recovery was simply a product of time.
For the people whose sense of smell doesn’t bounce back quickly, smell training can seem like their only hope for relief. And that would explain the sudden spike in interest in the exercise. For example, UK-based AbScent, an organization dedicated to people with smell dysfunction, reports the traffic to the smell training section of its website has been 30 times greater than last year. With the technique suddenly in the spotlight, here’s a look inside the quest to smell again.
How COVID-19 Impacts Smell
Smell loss is a fairly common symptom of the novel coronavirus. According to an analysis of electronic health records, COVID-19-positive patients were 27 times more likely to report anosmia than those that tested negative, whereas they were only 2.6 times more likely to have fever and/or chills and 2.2 times more likely to have a cough. Jay F. Piccirillo, a professor of otolaryngology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, calls the number of cases he’s seeing “a tidal wave coming out of a public health crisis.”
The mechanism at work, according to Zara M. Patel, an associate professor of otolaryngology at the Stanford University School of Medicine: “We know that the ACE receptor that SARS-CoV-2 attaches to and uses to enter the body is found in high concentration on the supporting cells within the olfactory system. The ensuing inflammation and destruction of those cells is why it causes loss of smell.” And, as she’s seen over the years in the field, for a small number of people anosmia can be permanent. While the reason isn’t clear, what is clear is that the longer it lasts, the harder it is for a patient to recover.