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Regaining Sense of Taste, Smell May Take One Year Post-Covid

Sense of smell
Credit: National Cancer Institute/National Institutes of Public Health. Many Covid-19 patient report that losing their sense of smell was one of the most disorienting sensations of anything that happened to them while they were suffering with the disease. Public domain

Those who have lost their sense of smell and taste after becoming ill with Covid-19 have some tough news to swallow as new research indicates that it may take up to a year for some people to regain these senses.

In a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, through its portal JAMA Network Open, researchers revealed that they followed a total of 97 patients who had suffered from the coronavirus and who had lost their sense of taste and smell for an entire year.

As part of the study, they were required to complete a survey every four months outlining the progress of their symptoms.

Out of all the patients, 51 of them were asked to undergo objective testing in order to corroborate the self-reported symptoms, since it is difficult to quantify such reports. Eight months into the study 49 out of these 51 patients reported the they had fully recovered their senses of taste and smell.

One of the two subjects who had not fully recovered his or her sense of smell was able to do so was able to smell, but picked up scents abnormally, sensing smells that were not present.

Another subject out of those 51 still had no sense of smell at all by the end of the year-long study. While 46 patients did not undergo such objective testing, they reported that their senses had fully recovered after one entire year.

The medial research website Nebraskamed.com interviewed ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor Christie Barnes, MD, who has patients who have lost their sense of smell.

The early data shows that 95% or more of people do fully recover their sense of smell after COVID-19 — even after a protracted period of time. “Luckily for humans, our sense of smell is highly regenerative,” Dr. Barnes states. “Olfactory nerves come back much easier than other types of nerves in the body, like spinal cord nerves or touch sensation nerves.”

What is less clear is why it takes some people much longer than others to regain these senses, while the vast majority of people recover their sense of smell over the period of two or three weeks.

Why do these peripheral senses matter so much?

The senses of taste and smell are closely linked physiologically. As you may already know, there are only five types of taste buds that can sense flavors on your tongue: sweet, sour, bitter, umami (also called savory) and salty.

The rest of what we sense as taste is the result of combined signals gathered from our tongues and noses.

“Smell does the heavy lifting for taste,” Barnes explains. All the flavor nuances from foods actually derive from their delicious smells.

“Most people’s taste isn’t technically damaged,” Barnes notes, adding “Their taste is significantly decreased because of their loss of smell.

Barnes runs a clinic in which  patients take 40-question tests outlining just how much loss they are experiencing. “With certain textures and spices, you can activate certain nerves to add some interest in the food you’re eating,” says Dr. Barnes.

As art of the “retraining” process for those who have issues with such sensory loss, Barnes employs a system of olfactory training, combined with topical nasal steroids, to regain what senses they can.

Barnes notes that this kind of training is basically like strength training for one’s sense of smell. People can use essential oils — or even spices from the kitchen cabinet in order to sharpen the sense of smell that is so vital to our everyday lives, from sensing whether or not food is spoiled to whether it is too spicy.

Barnes presents patients with a specific smell for 20 seconds — lemon is a great scent since it’s so memorable, she notes.

Meanwhile, the patient is told that they are indeed smelling a lemon and they are told to tell themselves this while recalling exactly what lemons taste and smell like. This process, she says, rebuilds connections between the nose and the brain.

“You should spend time on olfactory training every day, just like you would exercise,” says  Barnes. She states that between 30% to 50% of patients who go through this olfactory training enjoy an improvement in their sense of smell after a period of 12 weeks.

“If you can recover even a little bit of your sense of smell, it makes a big difference. Losing your sense of smell really does negatively affect your quality of life,” says Barnes.

When chefs lose their sense of taste, disaster looms

More Ethan one chef on the worldwide stage lost their sense of taste and smell as a result of Covid-19. “I was like, I’m a cook, I can’t live without my palate,” said Brazilian chef Thomas Troisgros from Le Blond in Rio de Janeiro, in an interview with the culinary website finedininglovers.com.

“That got me really, really worried. That was the thing that most flipped me out. It wasn’t my headaches, or if I could lose oxygen through my blood or muscle pains.

“The moment I smelt the coffee, I actually couldn’t smell it… and I started smelling other things, and I couldn’t smell anything. Completely like nothing, it was just like thin air, it was really, really weird,” he says.

Michelin-starred Italian chef Gianni Tarabini, who presides over La Preséf in the northern province of Lombardy, told interviewers that after the third or fourth day of his illness he realized he could no longer distinguish flavors. “I only perceived bitterness, a taste similar to that of salsify. It was like that for about ten days,” he explains.

Losing this vital sense posed an enormous obstacle for the renowned chef, who said that the entire concept of bitterness was emblematic of his entire Covid-19 experience. It even made drinking water a chore for him. “I struggled to drink because water was more bitter than any other food or drink, probably because it has a neutral taste.”

Valeria Raimondi, the editor in chief at Fine Dining Lovers, herself experienced the odd sensation of not being able to smell or taste after her Bruch with Covid-19. “Losing taste was one of the weirdest and most uncomfortable experiences of my whole life,” she states. “Food suddenly turned into textures and temperature only, even the strongest flavor or smell was reset to zero.

“This experience reminded me of the key role of memory when it comes to food: for almost three weeks that I was without taste, I went on eating the foods I liked, avoiding everything I would have usually avoided,” says Raimondi. “Taste is such an instinctive sense, usually taken for granted, that it’s hard to believe what it means to lose it.”

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