Not to be sniffed at: Agony of post-COVID-19 loss of smell

by Jeremy

NICE, France — The doctor slid a miniature camera into the patient’s right nostril, making her whole nose glow red with its tiny bright light. Tickles a bit, eh?” he asked as he rummaged around her nasal passages, the discomfort causing tears in her eyes and rolling down her cheeks.

The patient, Gabriella Forgione, wasn’t complaining. The 25-year-old pharmacy worker was happy to be prodded and poked at the hospital in Nice, in southern France, to advance her increasingly pressing quest to recover her sense of smell. Along with her sense of taste, it suddenly vanished when she fell ill with COVID-19 in November, and neither has returned.

“Sometimes I ask myself,’ Do I stink?'” she confessed. “Normally, I wear perfume and like for things to smell nice. Not being able to smell bothers me greatly.”

Even specialist doctors say there is much about the condition they still don’t know, and they learn as they go along in their diagnoses and treatments. Impairment and smell alteration have become so familiar with COVID-19 that some researchers suggest that simple odor tests could be used to track coronavirus infections in countries with few laboratories.

For most people, the olfactory problems are temporary, often improving in weeks. But a small minority complain of persistent dysfunction long after other COVID-19 symptoms have disappeared. Some have reported a continued total or partial loss of smell six months after infection. The longest, some doctors say, is now approaching an entire year.

Researchers working on the vexing disability say they are optimistic that most will eventually recover, but fearsome will not. Some doctors are concerned that growing numbers of smell-deprived patients, many young, could be more prone to depression and other difficulties and weigh on strained health systems.

“They are losing color in their lives,” said Dr. Thomas Hummel, who heads the smell and taste outpatients clinic at University Hospital in Dresden, Germany.

“These people will survive, and they’ll be successful in their lives and professions,” Hummel added. “But their lives will be much poorer.”

At the Face and Neck University Institute in Nice, Dr. Clair Vandersteen wafted tube after tube of odors under Forgione’s nose after he had rooted around in her nostrils with his camera.

“Do you perceive any smell? Nothing? Zero? OK,” he asked, as she repeatedly and apologetically responded with negatives.

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