COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, can have a wide variety of symptoms. One of the more alarming to wine and food enthusiasts is the loss of taste and smell.
Symptoms of COVID-19
- Fever or chills
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
- Muscle or body aches
- New loss of taste or smell
- Sore throat
- Congestion or runny nose
- Nausea or vomiting
Seek emergency medical care immediately if you experience:
- Difficulty breathing
- Chest pain or pressure that doesn’t go away
- Blue lips, face, or fingernails
- Trouble staying awake or difficulty waking up
Let’s take a closer look at the loss of smell and taste with COVID-19, how common it is, how long these symptoms may last, and what you can do to help regain your senses.
How COVID-19 affects smell and taste
It’s still unclear exactly how a loss of smell and taste happens with COVID-19, but some theories are circulating.
SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19, binds to a protein called ACE2 that’s found on the surface of potential host cells. ACE2 is abundant in cells found in your nose and mouth. Covid may invade the nerve cells associated with your senses of taste and smell. However, a recent study in the journal Science Advances has cast doubt on this theory.
Researchers failed to find ACE2 on nerve cells that detect scents. Instead, they found ACE2 on cells that surround and support these nerve cells. Infection of these surrounding cells could lead to levels of inflammation or damage that impact your ability to smell.
Less research has been done on how COVID-19 specifically affects taste. Because our sense of taste and sense of smell are closely linked, it is currently believed that people with COVID-19 likely experience loss of taste as a consequence of the loss of smell.
How many people are affected
About half of all COVID-19 patients will suffer from anosmia, the loss of smell. The guidance states that a new change or loss in sense of smell should prompt a period of self-isolation.
Nine out of 10 patients will show substantial improvement in their sense of smell within four weeks of the loss. However, many long-haul survivors report anosmia as an on-going issue.
The “long-haulers” came to be from the patients themselves. But it does not begin to describe the confusion, anxiety, and distress that long-term COVID-19 patients endure.
Maggie Glass of Highlands Ranch, Colorado recalls when her sense of taste returned: “I remember the first time I tasted something that wasn’t bland – it was on October 1st, 2020. My friend ordered us ceviche and the flavor was so amazing I ate the entire bowl (and I’m not really a raw-fish fan). It was so good, I ordered a second bowl! I got sick on March 25, so you can imagine how amazing it was to have gone 7 months and then being able to taste something!”
For Maggie though, the battle is not over. Even though she has regained her sense of smell, she still runs a fever every single day. For her, a “good day” is a fever that stays under 101 degrees.
Long-haulers like Maggie don’t have answers on when their symptoms might stop. Doctors don’t always know how to help them, and there is no adequate testing. The phenomenon of long-haulers is so new that science is only now beginning to grasp it. Experts have only now started to look at the issues surrounding long-haulers, and much of what they know is still only anecdotal.
Research shows that up to 10% of all COVID-19 patients are long-haulers.
Other causes of loss of smell
In addition to COVID-19, many other things can cause you to lose your sense of smell or taste. These include:
- Upper respiratory infections, such as colds, the flu, or sinus infections
- Nasal polyps
- Head injury
- Neurological conditions, including Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and Alzheimer’s disease
- Medications, such as some types of blood pressure medications, antibiotics, or antihistamines
- Hormonal changes due to conditions like hypothyroidism or Cushing’s syndrome
- Surgeries impacting the mouth, nose, or throat, such as sinus surgery or removal of wisdom teeth
- Radiation treatment for cancers in the head or neck
- Tumors in or around the head and neck
- Exposure to some types of chemicals or solvents
Treating loss of smell
There is hope for people suffering from this particular complication. People who lose their sense of smell may be helped by smell training, which involves people sniffing scents to spark the sense.
Researchers have examined other therapies — including vitamin A, omega-3 supplements, antibiotics, and various steroid treatments — with mixed results.
A 2009 study on the effects of smell training used the four main groups of smells (phenyl ethyl alcohol, eucalyptol, citronella, and eugenol) by having patients sniff a rose, lemon, eucalyptus, and clove scent twice daily.
AbScent, an organization dedicated to smell training, recommends people do this twice a day for four months. You can use products you have at home, or order a kit. Smell has a strong relationship with memory so pondering how lemons smell while imagining their scent bolsters the process.
While people feel distressed that they can’t smell or only smell and taste something foul or metallic, there is hope. The experts believe people can recover their smell, it just might take time and smell training can help to get you back on track quicker. And when they do return, treat yourself to a nice steak and an extra helping of wine.