Is your sense of smell still distorted after COVID? Here’s why

Coronavirus

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Have you developed an odd taste and smell you just can’t seem to shake? You’re not alone.  

As COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on our lives, we’re learning more and more about its lingering impacts.  

While online searches for these symptoms might often point to dental problems, it’s a condition doctors and Vanderbilt University Medical Center are seeing more of as patients recover from COVID-19.  

“A majority of people that get COVID-19 will lose at least some of their sense of smell,” said Dr. Justin Turner, Director of the Vanderbilt Taste and Smell Clinic. “Some people get their recovery very quickly, some people it’s much more slow.”    

Dr. Turner said although most will recover from COVID-19 within six to eight weeks, side effects can hit you down the line, even if you thought you were in the clear.  

“There’s a subgroup of individuals that will continue to have smell dysfunction going forward,” Dr. Turner said. “And I would say a pretty good proportion of those, probably about 20-25% are experiencing phantosmia or probably more commonly parosmias.”       

From laundry detergent, to trash, to raw meat, people across the world are experiencing odd tastes and smells they just can’t shake. 

“In phantosmia, you’re typically smelling something that isn’t there, whereas for example, parosmia, which is another type of dysosmia, you’re smelling something, like a flower, and it smells like something very different.       

With now more than 30 million documented COVID cases in the U.S., the condition, although a small percentage, will affect potentially millions of people.      

Dr. Turner explained the damage the virus can cause to your senses.  

“The cause of smell loss, at least in COVID-19, is thought to be that the virus itself is toxic to some of the supporting cells that provide nutrition and support to the actual Olfactory neuron that transmit signals from odorants into the brain.” 

According to Dr. Turner, when those neurons are damaged, they’re not able to transmit our smell senses to the brain.     

“But fortunately, there’s this layer of what are called basal cells that can regenerate overtime into new functioning olfactory neurons,” Dr. Turner said.  

The repair and regeneration process could take months and once your senses do come back, they may not be perfect.    

“And when they regenerate, they don’t make their connections automatically, they kind of have to find their way to the right places in the brain. Often that is what is causing some of these dysosmias, it’s just you’re getting the signals, the signals are being sent, but it’s not necessarily going to the right place,” Dr. Turner said.  

Picture your senses carrying a message to your brain telling it you sense a smell. But the smell it tells your brain might actually be different from what you’re really experiencing. Like delivering the right signal, but to the wrong door.     

But unfortunately, this taste and smell damage will be permanent for some. If you don’t have it back within a year, Dr. Turner said further recovery is unlikely.      

“I think this is a little bit of a public health issue I think going forward just because of those numbers, and we know that a certain subset of these individuals are probably going to have permanent smell loss that are going to need to take precautions in the future for protecting themselves from smoke and gas fumes and spoiled fumes and things like that they can’t smell anymore,” Dr. Turner said.  

There’s no known cure for phantosmia, but researchers are currently studying essential oil therapies. Even though there’s not yet a consensus from the scientific community, Dr. Turner said the oils are showing promise and it’s a tool Vanderbilt’s Taste and Smell Clinic is using with its patients.     

You can find lots of “smell training” kits online, which is usually a combination of several different oils to help stimulate regrowth of your senses.     

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