Losing your sense of smell is a well-documented Covid symptom but for Liz Darke problems with her sense of smell lasted for 12 months and now she’s learning to sniff again.
The Independent, 12 April 2021
Until March 2020, I had the superpower of a razor-sharp sense of smell. Nothing got past me: a rogue sock under the bed, a chip shop lurking around the corner, a Big Mac being devoured seven train carriages away. I was a fast-food truffle pig, if you will.
But come 16 March, I lost my sense of smell completely after contracting Covid-19. While the government didn’t add loss of smell (known as anosmia) and taste to the official list of coronavirus symptoms until late May (it was the third NHS symptom alongside fever and a new cough), many were reporting the condition – on social media, to doctors and to smell disorder charities – in the first quarter of 2020.
Professor Carl Philpott, director of medical and research affairs and trustee at UK smell-related disorders charity Fifth Sense, believes that worldwide 60 per cent of people have experienced smell loss or some form of smell distortion as part of a Covid infection.
My cherished sense of smell gradually returned about ten weeks after first contracting Covid, however it’s taken a whole 12 months for me to conclude that it’s absolutely nothing like it used to be.
Some of my favourite smells, such as my Tom Ford perfume, fresh garlic sweating in butter and the soothing eucalyptus of Olbas Oil, now make my stomach turn.
Back in the old, pre-Covid days, I had a penchant for raw onions that saw me piling them into salads, sandwiches and once a Greggs sausage and bean bake (it works, FYI) , but even the faint whiff of one makes me shudder these days.
Most mornings, my freshly-brewed coffee smells dangerously like steaming manure, while sniffing at a jar of Branston Pickle at Christmas was like having a hot poker shoved up my nose, the vicious aroma feeling like it had cauterized my nasal passages.
Apparently, this change in smell perception is quite common in those who contracted Covid-19. Known as parosmia, a distorted sense of smell is often linked to viral infections and is usually a sign that a patient is recovering.
Professor Carl Philpott explains to The Independent: “Patients go from not being able to smell anything to suddenly getting one or two of their receptors working again. But most of the things we smell in the world around us are mixtures of molecules and we recognise their patterns."
“If we’ve only got a few smell receptors working then we can only recognise part of the pattern, meaning it [the smell] is distorted”.
The current leg of my post-Covid odyssey has also led me into the world of phantosmia. As its name suggests, phantosmia is the experience of smelling something that doesn’t exist [the NHS gives the example of smoke or burning toast]. This is most common in people with no sense of smell at all, as the memory part of the brain tries to generate its own signals.
“Patients go from not being able to smell anything to suddenly getting one or two of their receptors working again."
“Phantosmia is a bit akin to the phantom pain amputees experience, like getting pain in a foot which they no longer have,” says Philpott.
About a month ago, while sat working from my kitchen table, I was overwhelmed by the long-lost smell of my childhood nursery. The waft of ancient, squeaky wooden floors and salty playdough hit me out of a nowhere – a mixture of scents I had no idea I could still recollect, but I was transported there, back to 1992, instantaneously.
Soon after that, I randomly encountered the sweet, alluring aroma of Cadbury’s Mini Eggs while soaking in the bath. This was weeks before I chain-ate hundreds over the Easter bank holiday, so maybe I just had chocolate on the mind? It is known that phantom smells can be a result of emotional or visual triggers evoking the memory.
Knowing how long these conditions will last for, and if my sense of smell will ever return to what it was before, isn’t clear. The long-term effects of Covid on the human body are as yet unknown, although there is one treatment that experts suggest could help.
"Armed with four jars of scent and a sick bag just in case, tomorrow I will start the first day of my smell training."
Devised in recent decades to improve the capabilities of smell disorder sufferers, smell training involves repeatedly exposing nasal receptors to a key set of scents in order to re-establish the connection between nose and brain.
“[Smell training] is a bit like what perfumers and sommeliers do when they’re first trying to train their nose and recognise scents that they work with. In the case of smell loss, this training tries to encourage your smell pathways to regrow the connections you had before,” explains Philpott.
Experts advise that you start with the four scents of rose (flowery), cloves (spicy), lemon (fruity) and eucalyptus (resinous), smelling each one as an essential oil twice a day for around 10-20 seconds at a time. Success rates of smell training vary; after a few weeks you may notice a difference, but it could take months, and some may not encounter improvement at all.
It is advised that after 12 weeks you change the scents however, and you can move on to more everyday aromas like ground pepper, coffee, vanilla and even fresh herbs.
So, armed with four jars of scent and a sick bag just in case, I am starting smell training. Yes, I’m a little dubious, especially as I hated the smell of rose and cloves even before the pandemic, but, as we’ve all learned in the past year, the road to recovery is never easy.
Here’s to cooking a spag bol (with extra onion and garlic) without wanting to hurl. Wish me luck.