'Smell therapy' helps COVID-19 patients regain their sense of smell and taste

For people who are dealing with a loss of smell and taste after battling COVID-19, the side effects and impact on their life can last for months.

How are doctors "fixing" the problem? It's a simple technique that's helping to retrain the brain one sniff at a time.

Studies show loss of smell and taste is a big problem, roughly effecting 75% of people who are diagnosed with COVID-19. For 1/3 of those people, it will last a long time after the virus.

"People usually show up in tears of frustration," said Dr. Sunthosh Sivam, ENT specialist at Baylor College of Medicine, of patients who recover from COVID-19 only to lose their sense of smell and taste.

It's more than just missing out on the pleasure of tasting your favorite meal.

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They've created recipes that try to trigger nerves, so they use ingredients like cinnamon, wasabi and mint.

"Everyday life is hard for a lot of moms or parents at home, not being able to smell diapers that need to be changed," Dr. Sivam said.

There's also a safety aspect.

"Make sure smoke detectors are functioning, because you won't be able to rely on your sense of smell," Dr. Sivam said. "Check expiration dates on food. There's a huge quality of life impact that's very real."

So, how are doctors helping people regain their sense of smell and taste?

"Lemon, rose, eucalyptus and cloves," said. Dr. Sivam. Not medication.

Health experts are recommending "smell therapy" where patients use essential oils while thinking of good memories of that scent.

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They have COVID-19 and couldn't smell the smoke from their burning home, but a teenage family member could and saved them.

"A lot of us have heard how powerful smell can be in triggering memories and things like that. So we are taking advantage of those ties," Dr. Sivam said.

How smell therapy works:
  1. Find a quiet spot
  2. Choose one scent to put on a cotton ball in a jar
  3. Waft the scent to your nose
  4. Think about memories of that smell that make you happy
  5. Repeat with one scent for 15 to 20 seconds in the morning and evening for one month

"I don't know that anyone knows or could tell you exactly why smell training works, but I think those are some of our thoughts on why it works, so we are just trying to tie those scents to those memories," Dr. Sivam said.

Sivam says after six months, studies showed 95% of patients recovered.

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