Our five senses — sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste — connect us with the world. From the sight of a distant sunset over emerald waters, to the feeling of embracing a loved one, the smell of hot brownies wafting from the kitchen, to tasting the multitude of flavors at Thanksgiving, we fundamentally rely on our senses to engage with our environment.
Certain scents and flavors can even comfort us; they have the ability to boost dopamine levels and uplift our mood because they connect us with happy memories (i.e. the smell of freshly baked brownies can prompt you to remember how you used to bake brownies with your grandmother).
If we lose one or more of our senses, however, life can feel a bit more dull and drab. Our senses of smell and taste are also closely linked; 95% of the time when an individual experiences a loss of taste it’s caused by a loss of smell. Without smell and taste, 40% of our sensory input is lost.
Unfortunately, as a result of COVID-19, more individuals have lost their sense of smell, taste, or both this past year than perhaps any time in history. Not only is this sensory loss an uncomfortable symptom and a challenge to grapple with, but it also poses a variety of mental health concerns.
So, what do you do if you’ve lost your sense of smell and taste? How do you cope?
Losing Your Smell and Taste from COVID-19
As we all now know, COVID-19 is a mysterious, contagious, and sometimes fatal disease. When it first appeared, a variety of odd symptoms began to be noticed in those who had fallen ill, among them, the loss of scent and taste. Many have described partially losing these senses, reporting that foods they once loved they now can’t stomach, or explaining that everything tastes metallic and unappetizing. Others have completely lost both these senses, being unable to smell or taste at all.
Exactly when the loss of taste and smell occurs varies: some might lose these senses as one of the first side effects of COVID-19, while others only experience the loss after they’ve already recovered from the illness.
How to test your smell and taste senses
If you think you might be dealing with the loss of taste or smell due to COVID-19, or if you want to know what to look out for, try out the exercises below:
- Test your taste
Try out foods with different characteristics. Make sure to try something salty (like a pretzel), sweet (a cookie), sour (lemon zest), or bitter (coffee).
- Test your smell
Locate pure, pungent scents like vanilla or an orange peel, but avoid harsh scents that trigger other sensory reactions such as cleaning solutions.
- Try the “Jellybean Test”
This is an interesting way to test both smell and taste. Simply pop a jellybean in your mouth while pinching your nose closed. Then, as you chew, see whether you can taste the sweet and sour flavors. Release your nose while you chew and see if you get the necessary odors to decipher what flavor the jellybean is. This is an important marker because it tests the process of retro nasal olfaction — bringing odors from the back of your mouth up to the nasal cavity.
Recovering from the loss of smell and taste after COVID-19
While the majority of those who have lost their sense of smell and taste regain their abilities within a couple of weeks, others experience a persistent loss, even after having recovered from COVID-19. In these cases, doctors remain unsure when or if their senses will bounce back. However, according to a piece published by Harvard Medical School, some experts believe that patients with loss of smell post-COVID-19 have an estimated 60% to 80% chance of regaining some of their smell function within a year. Other professionals, such as Dr. Evan R. Reiter, medical director of the smell and taste center at Virginia Commonwealth University, asserted that the change in smell might be part of the recovery process as nose receptors struggle to reawaken.
Although olfactory neurons are capable of regenerating, everyone will respond differently to the loss of a sense. For some, their sense of taste or smell will never return to pre-COVID levels, and some might never regain these senses at all. But more research is still needed to be done.
As Dr. Sandeep Robert Datta, an associate professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School says, “If you think worldwide about the number of people with Covid, even if only 10 percent have a more prolonged smell loss, we’re talking about potentially millions of people.” This realization has prompted a surge of research into the olfactory realm as scientists try to uncover a cure for the situation.
Before COVID-19, not much attention was given to researching olfaction, but that has quickly changed. And now many who have lost these senses are relying on researchers to help them find a way to experience life like they once used to. This new research will also greatly benefit those who have suffered since before COVID-19 from anosmia, the partial or complete loss of smell.
Mental Health Implications That Arise from Loss of Smell and Taste
The loss of smell or taste impacts our quality of life. As The New York Times explains, studies have linked anosmia to social isolation and anhedonia, the inability to feel pleasure and a general sense of detachment from others. This sensory deficit leads individuals to perceive their bonds with others as strained and intimate relationships are negatively impacted, leading to feelings of loneliness.
As Talkspace therapist Liz Kelly, LICSW, explains further, “The loss of your taste and smell is also an invisible, or hidden, disability; other people can’t readily observe this condition. Individuals contending with the loss of their taste and smell may experience isolation and loneliness because others do not know about or understand their experience.”
The inability to smell also restricts the way individuals perceive their environment, changing the way they live and experience the world. They’re stripped of that powerful engine of sense memory. One member of a Facebook support group wrote: “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.”
This lack of sensory experience can have a severe impact on mood and individual well-being, and is a substantial risk factor for anxiety and depression. Researchers have even found that olfactory dysfunction might lead to social disconnection. The mental health impacts of this loss are great, but it is best to familiarize yourself with them as well as how they can impact other mental health conditions.
Eating, a once pleasurable experience, may become uncomfortable and upsetting for those no longer able to properly smell or taste their food. It might also be harder to gauge one’s appetite, and many are reporting eating less, which might lead to substantial weight loss.
Many are experiencing increased anxiety as a result of their anosmia. Not being able to smell strips us of important survival skills, leading to anxiety about being able to smell a gas leak, a fire, or detect spoiled foods. Other anxiety-inducing elements of the loss of smell include being unaware of your personal smell, being unable to detect dirty laundry, serving food to others that you can’t taste or smell beforehand, or feeling like you’re missing out on a shared common experience. As Dr. Datta said, “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.”
For those who experience substantial pleasure from eating or smelling — bakers, chefs, those who work in fragrance — this loss can be particularly devastating and take a massive toll on mental health. For others who are just trying to find a way to cope with this era of COVID-19 quarantine, and who have found themselves gaining the most pleasure by cooking and enjoying comforting foods, this loss can feel like the final straw of a trying year. Food is also social, we enjoy gathering over a meal or a drink, or cooking for loved ones. Without our sense of taste or smell, we can feel stripped of these uplifting occasions. As Newhouse writes, “Recent studies have linked post-COVID anosmia to depression and anxiety. The jury is still out on whether this has to do with the loss of smell or taste per se — or with the impact of the virus on the central nervous system. One thing we know for sure, however: mood and sense of smell are intricately related.”
If a loss of taste and smell is causing you to feel anxious or depressed, know that you aren’t alone. You’re grappling with a significant life change, one of the most fundamental methods of connecting with the world. “These senses are closely tied to our emotions and memories. Losing one’s sense of taste and smell is a real loss and can bring up feelings of grief including sadness, anger, regret, denial, frustration, and other emotions,” says Kelly. “If this loss is causing you to feel anxious or depressed, acknowledge what you are feeling and give yourself permission to feel the complex emotions coming up for you.”
How to cope with this COVID-19 symptom
COVID-19 has tested us all in so many ways. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you cope with this loss:
First, allow yourself to grieve this loss and acknowledge your feelings. You have every right to feel sad, frustrated, and upset; give yourself time to process; be gentle with yourself.
- Consult an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist
ENT doctors have a wealth of information about the olfactory realm and will be able to offer their professional advice. Educate yourself on this condition so you have accurate information.
- Try incorporating smell training into your daily routine
A recent study found the training could be helpful in regaining scent. This exercise requires you to sniff various essential oils (try lavender, eucalyptus, rose, cinnamon and chocolate), a couple times a day. If you can’t smell the scents at all, engage your mind and try to remember the scents.
- Acceptance and gratitude
Dealing with a loss of scent and taste can be devastating, but while difficult try not focus on this loss that is out of your control. Foster a sense of gratitude for surviving a devastating disease.
- Focus on engaging your other senses through comforting activities
Implement new calming activities into your life. Watch a relaxing show, invest in soft lighting, listen to calming music, take a warm bath, or practice some yoga.
- Join support groups
Various support groups exist for those dealing with the repercussions of COVID-19. “It can help to talk with others who are also experiencing similar conditions through online support groups or by seeking out others who can relate,” says Kelly. Try out a Facebook group for those suffering with a loss of smell and taste as a result of COVID-19. This one is managed by the charity group AbScent and it has over 21,000 members!
- Speak to a therapist
COVID-19 has made this a challenging time for us all, but especially those grappling with a loss of their senses. Help is out there. With Talkspace, you can speak to a licensed therapist at any time, wherever you are. As Kelly says, “A therapist can validate your experience, provide you a safe space to process your emotions, and support you in identifying coping skills.”
Remember that all your feelings are valid, and be gentle with yourself. Allow yourself to simultaneously experience both the pain of losing these senses and pleasure that you find in other areas of your life. Getting through this loss will build your resilience for years to come. If you need help, please seek it. We are here to listen and help guide you through whatever feelings you might experience.