“You think of it as an aesthetic bonus sense,” Dr. Datta said. “But when someone is denied their sense of smell, it changes the way they perceive the environment and their place in the environment. People’s sense of well-being declines. It can be really jarring and disconcerting.”
“Smell is not something we pay a lot of attention to until it’s gone,” said Pamela Dalton, who studies smell’s link to cognition and emotion at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “Then people notice it, and it is pretty distressing. Nothing is quite the same.”
British scientists studied the experiences of 9,000 Covid-19 patients who joined a Facebook support group set up by the charity group AbScent between March 24 and September 30. Many members said they had not only lost pleasure in eating, but also in socializing. The loss had weakened their bonds with other people, affecting intimate relationships and leaving them feeling isolated, even detached from reality.
“I feel alien from myself,” one participant wrote. “It’s also kind of a loneliness in the world. Like a part of me is missing, as I can no longer smell and experience the emotions of everyday basic living.”
Another said, “I feel discombobulated — like I don’t exist. I can’t smell my house and feel at home. I can’t smell fresh air or grass when I go out. I can’t smell the rain.”
Loss of smell is a risk factor for anxiety and depression, so the implications of widespread anosmia deeply trouble mental health experts. Dr. Malaspina and other researchers have found that olfactory dysfunction often precedes social deficits in schizophrenia, and social withdrawal even in healthy individuals.
One of his patients is recovering, but “now that it’s coming back, she’s saying that everything or virtually everything that she eats will give her a gasoline taste or smell,” Dr. Reiter said.
The derangement of smell may be part of the recovery process, as receptors in the nose struggle to reawaken, sending signals to the brain that misfire or are misread, Dr. Reiter said.
After loss of smell, “different populations or subtypes of receptors may be impacted to different degrees, so the signals your brain is used to getting when you eat steak will be distorted and may trick your brain into thinking you’re eating dog poop or something else that’s not palatable.”
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Patients desperate for answers and treatment have tried therapies like smell training: sniffing essential oils or sachets with a variety of odors — such as lavender, eucalyptus, cinnamon and chocolate — several times a day in an effort to coax back the sense of smell. A recent study of 153 patients in Germany found the training could be moderately helpful in those who had lower olfactory functioning and in those with parosmia.
Dr. Alfred Iloreta, an otolaryngologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, has begun a clinical trial to see whether taking fish oil helps restore the sense of smell. The omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil may protect nerve cells from further damage or help regenerate nerve growth, he suggested.
“If you have no smell or taste, you have a hard time eating anything, and that’s a massive quality of life issue,” Dr. Iloreta said. “My patients, and the people I know who have lost their smell, are completely wrecked by it.”
Mr. Reynolds feels the loss most acutely when he goes to the beach near his home to walk. He no longer smells the ocean or salt air.
“My mind knows what it smells like,” he said. “And when I get there, it’s not there.”
This content was originally published here.