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Physician explains how COVID-19 mutes sense of smell

Woman smells orange
Apr 15 2022

By Hanae Armitage

In December of 2020, I received an unexpected Christmas present: a dry, persistent cough.

Just as vaccines were rolling out, I caught COVID-19. Super.

My symptoms were fairly predictable -- a cough and fatigue. I thought that would be the extent of it, but one morning, a few days into isolation, I made a cup of tea, a sweet and spicy blend with a strong scent. I lifted the mug to my nose and inhaled. Nothing.

Like a lot of people who lost their sense of smell -- a condition referred to as anosmia -- because of COVID-19, I spent the next 10 minutes smelling miscellaneous items from the back of my refrigerator. Could I detect chopped garlic? No. Dijon mustard? Nope. Blue cheese? Nada.

A day or two later, my ability to taste also slipped away. Soup was hot water with chunks in it; crackers nothing but crunchy cardboard. I could still ascertain rudimentary tastes: Cookies were vaguely sweet, and chips were slightly salty. But that was where it ended.

Throughout the weeks of my dulled senses I couldn't help but wonder, "What is happening? Are my poor olfactory neurons -- the cells responsible for processing smell -- dying? Are they temporarily damaged? Or is this a permanent loss?"

Months later, after I had -- spoiler alert -- made a full recovery, including of my sense of taste and smell, Zara Patel, MD, a Stanford Medicine physician-scientist and associate professor of otolaryngology, and others published a paper that dug into the latest research on smell, including COVID-19's effect on the sense.

Although my COVID-19 stint had become a distant memory, I still wondered about the science behind how I Iost my sense of smell, so I reached out to Patel. She helped shine a light on what was going on molecularly, how I regained my senses, and how people who have yet to recover might be able to retrain their olfactory system to smell again.

"Most people with earlier variants of COVID-19 experienced loss of smell, but there are so many different reasons why this happens; it's not just one mechanism," Patel said. "Unfortunately, few doctors specialize in treating, evaluating or diagnosing anosmia."