If you’ve lost your sense of smell you know the loss of olfactory function can be a serious blow to quality of life. It can also be dangerous. To stay safe and healthy we must be able to smell threats like gas leaks, tainted food odors, and smoke, to name just a few.
Most of us have at one time or another experienced the loss, or severe curtailment, of our ability to smell things. This most commonly occurs when we have nasal congestion that has been brought on by a cold or allergies. The congestion blocks smell by preventing the smell molecules from getting into the olfactory receptor area of the nose.
As I write this we are in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. It turns out that loss of smell is one of the common side effects of a Covid-19 infection. And, though less frequently reported, Covid-19 vaccination can also cause the loss of smell.
I first learned this when I lost my sense of smell a couple of weeks after I received a Covid-19 vaccination shot. This was about 10 months ago following my third, or booster, vaccination.
The first symptom I noticed was an unfamiliar odor that had taken up residence in my nose. The odor was present much of the time. It was especially strong when I blew my nose. Annoying, but not all that terrible.
Then one morning a couple of weeks after the booster shot I woke up with the strange smell gone. Hooray, I thought. About time! I hoped it was gone for good.
Like they say, be careful what you wish for.
My rejoicement came to a halt when I realized that not only was the strange odor gone, so was my entire sense of smell. I could smell nothing.
I tested my sniffer on all kinds of things and could smell none of them. Not even faintly. I knew my sense of smell really was a goner when I could not smell the acetone-based PCV cement in my shop. It has a strong, burning odor and if you can’t smell that, you really are “odor free” (in the worst way).
My sense of taste was evidently still intact. I tested all five basic tastes — salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and savoriness — and they seemed to be functioning as usual. Yet the taste of most foods was seriously diminished. I could still taste things, but much of the flavor — which comes from the combination of smell with taste — was missing.
My smeller had gone AWOL without warning in just one night, from the time I went to bed to the next morning.
There was a classroom demonstration related to taste and smell I used to conduct in psychology classes. I would have some apple and some onion, both of them peeled and diced so that what they were was not obvious. When student’s noses were plugged they could not tell whether they were eating a piece of apple or a piece of onion.
Telling the difference between an apple and an onion depends on an intact sense of smell. We don’t realize how much of the flavor of food comes from its smell. Until it’s gone, that is.
The common report of people who have lost their sense of smell due to Covid-19 is that it goes immediately. Like a switch had been turned off.
It goes immediately, but that’s not how it comes back. It doesn’t just “turn back on.” It comes back gradually, and sometimes it comes back all messed up, where things smell different from how they smelled before.
No one knows how this olfactory system of ours works. It is a fantastically complicated coding that develops all the different smells that our brain can identify and, in some way, understand.
Humans have about 400 smell receptors that we use to identify something like a trillion different smells. Yes, a trillion: 1,000,000,000,000. How do I know? Because some neuroscientist with too much time on his hands said so. Do I believe it? Nah. Let’s just say we can normally smell a lot of things and when we can’t we have lost a significant proportion of our sensory experience.
It seems that our olfactory receptor neurons are constantly regenerating every few weeks. That is good news because it means that if the cause of a loss of sense of smell is located at the level of those receptor neurons, the sense of smell will return.
As long as no damage has occurred to the olfactory epithelium, we will live to smell again.
This is supported by the reports of lots of people who have lost their ability to smell as a symptom of Covid-19: Their sense of smell returned after a couple of weeks.
So if you have recently lost your sense of smell as a symptom of Covid-19, there is a good chance you’ll be back to smelling things in a few weeks. It seems to have worked that way for a lot of people.
But not everyone. Some of us have found this a long term disability. Like I said, I have had the problem for neigh unto a year.
I have been engaged in a remediation regimen that appears to be having a positive effect, albeit slowly.
My regimen involves suggestion and smell target training.
First, about the training. We all have memories of what things smelled like for us before our loss of smell. So it makes sense that olfactory training will help by “telling” those new receptor neurons what things should smell like. That and giving them regular, daily workouts just like you would for, say, muscles. If you can remember what coffee smells like you can sniff your cup of coffee while recalling the old familiar smell from memory.
My daily training exercise — which I may do more than once a day, depending upon time and mood — involves five scents with which I was familiar before my anosmia“Anosmia” is the complete loss of the sense of smell.: camphor in Absorbine, floral scent in a room freshener spray, clove in an essential oil, orange extract, and the mentholated smell of Vicks. I also occasionally use the smell of PVC cement as a sort of shock treatment.
My training procedure is not unique. There are a lot of people on the Internet interested in and involved with smell training. It has become a thing and there is now an online community chattering and exchanging tips about smell and Covid-19.
As you might expect there is a lot of nonsense that needs to be ignored. For example, one evidently popular panacea is to burn an orange and eat it. And of course a few people who tried it swear by it because, “it worked!” That no doubt would be the result of the omnipresent placebo effect. (“Lick a rock every morning before breakfast and you will get well.”
Anyway, back to business. Here, as succinctly as I can describe it, is my training routine. It is quite simple:
- Open a scent target and hold it about an inch from one nostril while pressing a finger against the other to block it from smelling. (I do this because there are separate receptors for each side of the nose. In my case the left side sense of smell is returning faster than the right.)
- Sniff long and deeply. Wait a few seconds, then repeat. Do this for a total of three sniffs. Some recommend short, shallow sniffs. I disagree. I often find the perception of smell more noticeable and stronger toward the end of the third sniff.
- With the memory of the smell just sniffed by a nostril, I plug it up with my finger and smell with the other nostril. Hold the smell in memory as if to say, “This is what you should be smelling.” Again, three deep sniffs.
- Repeat for each of my five smell targets. Not only is there a difference in progress between nostrils, there is also a difference in each of the scents. Some I smell more strongly than others.
- Maintain an on-going written record of how I am doing. Basing it on a scale of one to 10, I am currently rating my smell ability as 5 on my left side and 2 on the right. I do this rating and recording every few days.
Now for the suggestion program.
Suggestions applied during self-hypnosis are generally the most effective. There is nothing weird or woo-woo about this. Self-hypnosis is simply a skill that facilitates the application of suggestion. Suggestion is where all the direction, correction and improvement comes from.
Suggestion associated with self-hypnosis is hypnotic suggestion. It is waking suggestion when applied without any other supportive procedure such as a hypnotic induction.
One of my books on self-hypnosis.
The way suggestions are worded is important and should be approached with serious concern for exactly what the suggestion says and how it could be interpreted.
Free tutorial on suggestion formulation.
Of all the clinical and laboratory research I have conducted over the years I have never had occasion to do any research on the sense of smell. So what follows is me flying by the seat of my pants, as it were, and making it up on the basis of my past experiences and research results. I’m pretty sure I’m right about the way I am going about it.
Because the sense of smell is largely neurological I chose to stick with image suggestion. At least once a day I apply a visualized suggestion of a person bringing me a rose. The obvious implication is that I can and should smell the rose. So I dutifully accept the rose with gratitude and proceed to sniff it. When I do that I recall the smell of roses and imagine that I can smell the rose just as I remember smelling roses in the past.
An added ingredient I have worked into this imagery is the thought that I will accurately smell the rose and everything else as my sense of smell returns. This is because there are many reports of people’s sense of smell returning only to be all screwed up and incorrect. The smell they experience does not correspond to their memory of what they are smelling.
Breakfast cereal that smells like swamp gas or petunias that smell like musty socks are not what we want as the sense of smell returns. Nor do we want apples to smell like watermelon. So training is an important aspect of correctly regaining the sense of smell.
My program is working. Slowly. But it is working.
Yesterday I was in a grocery store and was almost overwhelmed by the the smell of apples in the fruit department. Not overwhelmed by the strength of the smell, but by just the fact that I could smell them. It was a great, and emotional, experience. Interestingly, it was only a particular kind of apple I could smell, one that has never been one of my favorites.
I could not smell the other kinds of apples, even though I bent over and sniffed them from a few inches away. Another customer was observing me and when she started looking alarmed I straightened up and said, “These don’t smell like watermelons to me!” and walked away.
I know; I know. Childish. But sometimes I just can’t help myself, especially when I’m in a good mood, and that was the effect on me of being able to smell those apples. And they didn’t smell like watermelons.
Besides, I gave that woman a gift you just can’t buy: A funny story to share with her friends.