Losing your sense of taste and sense of smell is more than a mere annoyance — enjoying food is a fundamental human pleasure, so having that ability taken away can be very unsettling (and prevent us from taking in sufficient calories and nutrition). Plus, we use our sense of smell not only for pleasure but also to detect danger, such as a gas leak, and to take care of our loved ones, such as figuring out whether the baby needs a new diaper.
While an inability to taste and smell is associated with many conditions (and is a side effect of some medications), we’ve seen this symptom on an especially large scale with COVID-19. For some people, these senses return a few weeks after they recover from COVID-19; for others, the return can take a few months or longer. A loss of taste and smell is sometimes caused by inflammation in the sinus cavity, which can tamp down olfactory sensitivity. Why the symptom lingers in some people remains relatively unknown.
• See a physician
• Avoid smoking or vaping
• Eat slowly, so food has time to “sit” on the taste buds
• Use a nasal saline rinse
• Take allergy medications, if needed
• Use a nasal decongestant (or prescribed steroid)
• Smell-train your brain with familiar scents
• Stay hydrated
• Consume plenty of protein-rich foods
• Consume foods with strong flavors (such as spicy or acidic foods)
COVID-19 can affect these senses because of the types of cells it infects. The virus that causes COVID-19 does not affect olfactory sensory neurons; rather, it affects the support cells in the nasal lining that interact with those neurons.
The support cells to the olfactory neurons regenerate about every 14 days, meaning that most people see improvements within two to three weeks. For people with longer-term symptoms, about 96 percent have smell and taste come back within one year of infection.
Flavors, scent, and memory are closely related, and a single whiff can bring a raft of happy memories — the smell of a family recipe, the scent of charcoal on a grill, or even lemon-scented wood cleaner can transport a person to a different time or place. Without the ability to smell, you may not be able to distinguish flavors of foods. This can affect your desire to eat, how foods taste to you, your overall appetite, and your quality of life.
While some people may require steroidal treatment to regain their sense of smell and taste, others choose smell training. Smell training is a natural therapy that has been used for a long time with other olfactory disorders. The olfactory bulbs that detect scent connect to the brain (think of how that smell of lemon-scented wood cleaner makes you think of your grandmother’s house, for instance). Using smell training can help rewire the brain and increase neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to repair itself after injury or infection.
Wondering how to smell train at home? First, find four scents you are very familiar with that are also very pungent or strong.
Some common scents are:
• Peanut butter
• A perfume that you or a loved one wears
Twice a day, each day for up to twelve weeks, breathe deeply and inhale the four scents one at a time. After twelve weeks, try out new, but still familiar, scents. It is ideal to start smell training as soon as you lose your sense of smell — the first six weeks after infection are a critical window. Although there are smell-training kits available, you can do these helpful exercises at home with dried herbs, extracts, and common items in your pantry or medicine cabinet.
The goal of smell training is to prevent long-term loss of smell. Long-term or chronic anosmia and dysgeusia (loss of smell and loss of taste, respectively) can have negative effects beyond just enjoyment of food. Unintended weight loss, inability to detect sour or spoiled food, vitamin deficiency, and depression are all possible effects.
You may have heard the “burnt orange hack” described as a way to regain the senses of smell and taste. It involves charring the exterior peel of an orange, peeling it carefully, discarding the peel, mashing the pulp with brown sugar, and then consuming the sugar and fruit mixture while it is hot. Some people have claimed that this helped to reawaken their sense of taste, but there is no evidence supporting these claims. That said, there’s no harm in trying this hack, provided you are careful when charring the orange.
Maintaining a relationship and rapport with a healthcare provider is a key element of maintaining good health. If you test positive for COVID-19, or are experiencing an upper respiratory infection, it is important to inform your primary care provider. When you experience a loss of smell or taste, your physician may instruct you to begin using a saline rinse, allergy medication, or nasal steroid to rule out any physical blockages. If symptoms continue, they may recommend smell training. If symptoms are chronic, you may need to discuss diet modification, supplementation, and other therapies.
More than one million people have reported losing their senses of smell and taste due to COVID-19. About 70 percent of those people recover fully from their symptoms, while the remaining 30 percent have chronic or longer-term symptoms. Though the majority of data surrounding anosmia and dysgeusia are related to the Alpha and Delta variants of COVID-19, the Omicron variant may still cause this symptom. As the pandemic continues, those numbers are expected to grow.
Anosmia and other olfactory dysfunction are not limited to COVID-19. A person can experience these symptoms after a cold, the flu, or a bout of allergies. Using smell training at the first sign of irregularity is a great way to minimize those symptoms and help speed recovery, as is taking any prescribed medications as directed by a healthcare provider. The best way to prevent a loss of smell and taste from infection is to avoid infection in the first place — getting COVID-19 vaccines and flu vaccines are the first step.
If you are experiencing a loss of your sense of taste or your sense of smell and want to begin smell training or speak with a physician, Carbon Health can help. Download the Carbon Health app or visit carbonhealth.com to make a virtual or in-person appointment with a healthcare provider.
Carbon Health’s medical content is reviewed and approved by healthcare professionals before it is published. But note that our knowledge and understanding of COVID-19 are developing and changing very rapidly; if you have questions or concerns about COVID-19 precautions, treatments, and vaccinations, please talk to your healthcare provider.