Long-term smell loss now affects so many of us. Smell training might just be the answer
Pre-pandemic, most of us took our sense of smell for granted. But Covid made us think twice. Many of us suddenly couldn’t smell our delicious dinner, our usual perfume or in fact anything at all. Loss of smell – whether fleeting or long-haul – is one of the many common symptoms of the virus. In fact, nearly half of us who caught Covid in the first wave of infections may be suffering long-term or even permanent changes to our sense of smell, according to new research from Sweden.
TikTok was awash with DIY suggestions of how to get your smell back after Covid. One user shared his mother’s recipe of blackening orange over an open flame, peeling off the burnt orange skin, mixing it with brown sugar and eating while hot. While he claims it fixed his entire family’s loss of taste and smell immediately, we’ll leave doctors to fathom if it really works. Others proved just how far gone their sense of taste and smell were by necking shots of chilli sauce and munching a raw onion without flinching.
Whatever the cause, it can take months, even years for our sense of smell to return. One-third of people in the Swedish study at Danderyd Hospital and Karolinska Institutet had not fully recovered their sense of smell after 18 months. Worse, nearly half of them developed a condition known as ‘parosmia', a distorted sense of smell, where things that once smelled pleasant like your morning coffee suddenly smell like rotten eggs or vomit.
This condition is increasingly being reported post-Covid. One sufferer, radio presenter Ellie Phillips, 34, told The Observer that four months post-Covid a cheese toastie suddenly smelled “Like sewage and rotting flesh." She lost a substantial amount of weight as she was simply unable to eat normally.
Before the pandemic, UK smell loss charity AbScent was pretty niche with 1,500 members. Now it has 76,000 worldwide.
Is there anything you can do to recover your sense of smell more quickly or, simply hone your ability to sniff out a Molecule 01 perfume wearer or a sale bargain at Harvey Nichols?
Yes! AbScent has launched a series of smell-boosting workshops in London at the Queen’s pharmacy John Bell & Croyden. The hour-long interactive sessions run by AbScent founder Chrissi Kelly have been so popular that many have sold out within 24 hours. The next workshop is on Thursday 3rd March (book online here ) with another in April, but you can also DIY smell trains (see our step-by-step below).
What is smell training exactly?
Smell training involves actively sniffing the same four scents every day, spending around 20 seconds on each scent with intense concentration. After a month you can move on to another four scents, then two months later, you can introduce four more. It is easy, safe, recommended by doctors and according to Kelly, will also improve your sense of taste. “This is known as ‘retronasal olfaction’, which is essentially our brain’s perception of odour in the mouth,” explains Kelly. “The combination of retronasal olfaction and true taste – salty, sweet, sour, bitter, umami – is what creates flavour and gives us a sense of pleasure from food.”
Is there any science to smell training? There are more than a dozen studies showing that it can improve your sense of smell, according to Kelly. In 2015 a study in Germany and Turkey on 85 people with smell loss over four months doing smell training twice a day found significant improvement over those who did no smell training. Those who practised on a greater variety of things performed better than those who only used four.
There are currently four million of us living with Covid-related smell and taste loss, according to Covid research by health science company Zoe in association with King’s College London, the largest community monitoring of Covid in the world. But you don’t just need to be a Covid long-hauler to join in. Anyone can do smell training to heighten this all-important sense.
Covid, of course, isn’t the only cause of smell loss. Everything from colds and sinus infections to allergies, pollution, head trauma, hay fever, nasal polyps and old age can bring it on.
Nearly half of all people classed as having smell loss actually have a distorted sense of smell, according to a recent study from Sweden. This can take the form of 'parosmia' (for example, onions smelling like rotten meat) or its sister syndrome ‘phantosmia’, a kind of ‘smell hallucination’ where sufferers imagine a smell in the nose – such as burning smells or cigarette smoke.
No surprise then that losing your sense of smell can be devastating, from losing your appetite, putting you off your partner or even suffering from depression at not being able to enjoy the things you used to, according to Kelly. She lost her sense of smell in 2012 after a sinus infection and developed parosmia.
“I felt like a different person, I didn’t even recognise myself”, she recalls. “I lost all sense of pleasure. I was so off my food that even going to the grocery store was difficult because everything smelt vile. It was a disgusting, alien smell, like nothing I’ve ever smelt before. I felt so isolated as my friends and family didn’t understand it.”
She found the effects so life-changing, she set up the AbScent charity to support others and help end smell disorders. Unable to find help from her GP, using her background in science, she studied smell loss and developed her own system of smell training. Doing the practice twice daily she noticed a small improvement in four months.
“The technique retrains the brain to smell by stimulating the olfactory nerve to regenerate,” she explains. “Gradually citrus smells like grapefruit, orange and lime became more palatable to me.” Her case was so severe it was another two years of dedicated training before she noticed a significant improvement. “Finally, I could smell my children again and notice everyday scents like the smell of wet leaves in the rain.”
Kelly has had Covid three times since then and lost her sense of smell again each time, most recently in October, so she’s still working on it with smell training now.
Her techniques, used alongside smell training kits , which you can buy or make yourself using essential oils, have helped thousands of people to reconnect with their lost sense of smell.
How long does it take to recover your sense of smell?
“Everyone is different, so it’s impossible to predict how quickly smell training will have an effect,” says Kelly. “I’ve seen people who report being able to smell something again after just two weeks of concentrated, twice daily smell training and I know others who take years to regain their full sense of smell. The most important thing is not to give up.”
Don’t lose faith though. Keep at it. For extra motivation, you can even use the AbScent Snif app to help you. It’ll guide you through the process and keep track of your progress.
Even if you haven’t had Covid, of course, anyone wanting to boost their senses can try it. Here’s how…
6 steps to retrain your sense of smell
First, you’ll need a smell training kit. You can make your own or buy an Original Smell Training Kit online from AbScent, £34.99 . This usually consists of four distinct fragrances made from a mix of essential oils (Kelly uses lemon, clove, rose and eucalyptus) and other fragrances. It comes with four amber-coloured glass jars (the dark protects the oils from light damage) each with a special fragrance industry paper pad in the bottom. This paper is ideal because it’s absorbent so you’ll get a strong whiff of your oils but it’s not too fibrous so it won’t harbour bacteria which can affect the smell over time.
Smell training kits from AbScent are designed to last at least four months. “They are different from pure essential oils,” explains Kelly, “as they also contain special aroma compounds that give off a stronger scent and the formulation is more stable so they are designed to last longer. The scent is stored in a special liner inside that keeps them fresh.”
1. Add five or six drops of the essential oil to the paper discs in the jars so the paper is saturated and impregnated with the fragrance.
2. Once assembled, find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. Take little ‘bunny sniffs’, drawing the air from the jar up your nose but not all the way down into your lungs. Do this for about 15 to 20 seconds. Concentrate on the scent and commit it to your memory using your own emotional connections to that smell. For instance, maybe the scent of cloves reminds you of Christmas or the smell of lemon reminds you of a summer holiday in Spain!
3. It’s not just about training the nose. You’re re-training the whole olfactory system right up to the brain so full concentration is important. “Most people think smell just happens between the nostrils, but that’s wrong – smell is a complex series of brain processes that only starts in the nostrils,” explains Kelly. “Our sense of smell is linked to a whole set of memories and emotions.” Be as attentive as you can and really try to 'find' that smell in your mind, shutting out the world around you.
4. Relax, take a few breaths and move on to the next fragrance, working through all four in turn.
5. Do this twice daily and make sure you keep it up for at least four months, adding four new scents every month. See the AbScent website for ideas. For extra motivation, you can even use the AbScent Snif app to help you. It’ll guide you through the process and keep track of your progress.
6. If going DIY, change your oils every four to five months. They should stay fresh during this time if you keep them tightly capped and out of the sun. Absent kits last four months.
When to see a doctor about smell loss
If you’ve lost your sense of smell for more than three weeks, you should see a doctor, advises Kelly. “Short-term changes in your sense of smell are common after Covid, a cold or sinus infection, but if your symptoms persist or if you’re at all worried about long-term changes in your sense of smell, you should seek medical advice,” she says. “In some cases, changes in your sense of smell can be a warning sign of a more serious condition, so it is always best to get medical attention to either rule out that possibility or take early action.”
“Your doctor may refer you to a specialist to try to determine the origin of your smell loss,” says Kelly. “An ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist could perform an endoscopic examination using a tiny camera to look at the inside of your nose. A neurologist might explore other symptoms you have experienced to investigate more serious brain problems.” Your doctor may also carry out other tests, she adds, including:
- Checking the lowest strength of a smell that you can detect
- Asking you to compare different smells
- Observing your olfactory anatomy using an MRI scan
We may take our sense of smell for granted, but Kelly points out that it’s also vital for our safety, for instance, being able to smell a burning oven or a gas leak. “Our olfactory sense is there to alert us to potential danger,” says Kelly. “The impact of a loss of smell can run deep psychologically. Some people – like employers – might not believe your symptoms but think about how important smell is to communicate. It’s a sense worth cherishing.”