Meet COVID-19 patients who lost their sense of smell and doctors working to determine whether the condition, called anosmia, is permanent.
How Anosmia Could Affect Doctors’ Coronavirus Screenings
Published: September 25, 2020
Yasmina: My test was negative.
Elizabeth: I thought I had a bad cold.
Lauren: And I had, kind of, the classic cough and low grade fever.
Elizabeth: I was kind of tired. I kind of achy
Yasmina: I just had fever two days.
Lauren: And then I felt better. I was a little bit sick for a couple days then I'm like, "Oh, cool. I am done."
Elizabeth: A few days after that, at dinner, I could taste and smell absolutely nothing.
Yasmina: I put some perfume, and I didn't smell anything.
Lauren: My son walked in with a plate with a piece of bacon on it, and I was shocked because I couldn't smell it.
Narrator: These people have a COVID-19 symptom. One that could change the way in which we detect the coronavirus.
Archive: The nose must be able to distinguish between thousands of scents.
Carol Yan: We think that anywhere between a quarter to maybe three quarters of people actually have smell loss with COVID-19.
Ellen Foxman: That's one of the first symptoms people have reported before they get another, more severe illness. Or sometimes they don't even get a more severe illness and that's the only symptom they report.
Archive: We are constantly bathed in a vast sea of odors and tastes.
Foxman: The way that smell works, is that inside our nose there's special sensors that sense different chemicals and send different signals to our brain.
The cells around the area of those special sensory cells can get infected by the virus. Damage in that area kind of disrupts the whole activity that normally goes on inside the nose. And that is thought to maybe be the reason why people lose their sense of smell.
News Anchor: New clue for doctors trying to diagnose the coronavirus. Some patients say they lost their sense of smell...
Foxman: As you probably heard in the news, the loss of sense of smell might be a useful symptom in a way that helps us get control of this virus
Yan: People are being screened for COVID-19 based on fever, cough, or sore throat. And the only problem is so many people can have a fever and cold and coughs from other viruses. But acute smell loss and profound smell loss seems to be very specific to COVID-19.
Ellen Foxman: Most people, if they were to lose their sense of smell would notice that. So in fact, even if it's not nice to lose our sense of smell, it might be one of the tools that helps us get a handle of this virus, by being an early sign to tell people to go get tested.
Archive: ...and see what happens when they are burnt.
Narrator: But so far, most of the data is self-reported.
Archive: Wool smells like burnt hair, or feathers.
Narrator: In order for smell loss to be a viable way of detecting the virus, the medical community needs more precise testing.
Yan: There are centers in the US that you can go to that will do smell and taste testing. One of the kind of quick and easy smell tests that you can conduct to yourself is scratch and sniff booklets. There are all sorts of scents on these tests. And that includes floral scents, fruity scents, sometimes unpleasant scents. It gives us as clinicians and scientists a good idea of what your baseline might be today.
Onscreen: It's estimated that up to half of the people infected with the coronavirus experience smell loss.
Yan: About a quarter of people may not get their sense of smell back. And it's too early to know whether that this is permanent or not.
Narrator: For those who do lose their sense of smell, even temporarily, the result can be unsettling.
Elizabeth: You know, I have lost taste to a certain extent when you can't smell. As the days went on it got a little sad because I realized how much joy in life I get out of tasting food.
Yan: A lot of us just take our sense of smell for granted. There are a lot of dangers in not having your sense of smell.
Lauren: And it's also like a safety issue. Like sometimes you need to know that something not good is happening.
Yasmina: I'm afraid I cannot smell some food that has gone bad. I'm afraid I cannot smell gas leak.
Narrator: Currently, there's no quick treatment to recover someone's sense of smell. But there is still hope.
Yan: Smell training is really helpful if you get a set of essential oils and practice smelling the scent a couple of times a day. And the idea is you're training the nerve fibers, neurons, your nose to hopefully regenerate and also to basically form those connections back to the brain. People can actually get improvement and even complete recovery of sense of smell up to a year, maybe even two years later.
Foxman: One of the challenging things very early in dealing with brand new disease like this one is there's a lot of questions that can only be answered after time goes by. And time hasn’t gone by yet. That's why we all have to have a little bit of patience right now to get the answers that we need. And in the meantime, we know there's things that we can do to prevent the virus spread that are very low tech, like face masks. You know, that it's low tech, but it works.
Digital Producer and Editor: Arlo Perez
Research and Production Assistance: Sukee Bennet, Christina Monnen
Archival: Shutterstock, Indiana University Libraries Moving Image Archive, Internet Archive, CBS news, Pond5, Storyblocks
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