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Utah doctor: Smell therapy helps COVID-19 patients regain sense of smell, taste

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SALT LAKE CITY – Lack of smell and taste are some of the most common symptoms of COVID-19 and have affected up to 85% of patients, according to the National Institutes of Health. For some, those symptoms have lingered for months but a new therapy is showing promise.

If you've ever felt like up is down, or in is out, you might relate to Courtney Wightman.

"I can't remember what garlic is supposed to smell like," Wightman said. "I got my morning Diet Coke. I was taking sips and I was like, 'Something tastes weird about this. It tastes like onions.'"

Her sense of smell has been off since she got COVID-19 in January. Even spa scents, like eucalyptus, are just wrong. "I can still smell that garbage smell," Wightman said.

Smell affects taste, and severely limited her diet. "I ate SO many quesadillas. It felt like, 'What am I living for?' Because for me, living, is like, eating."

Dr. Alexander Ramirez, medical director of the clinical program in otolaryngology with Intermountain Healthcare, said he's seen success with smell therapy. He described it as physical therapy for the nose.

As part of the process, patients smell certain scents in a certain way.

"Eucalyptus, clove, lemon and rose, because that represents the spectrum," Ramirez said. "But it's equally as powerful to use something very strong, either something that's terrible or good."

He recommended doing 'bunny sniffs,' three short sniffs in rapid succession, rather than a long inhale through the nose, which is less effective.

Proof that the therapy works is limited, but a 2021 study published by the National Center for Biotechnology looked at a number of independent studies on smell therapy for all kinds of post-viral patients suggested it is helpful.

"Twenty seconds of that, give it a break, go to the next one, four different fragrances, twice a day for three months," Ramirez said. You have to visualize the scent, too. "So that part of the brain can actually reroute itself and remember how to smell."

Recovery can take 12-16 months, Ramirez said.

It's starting to work for Wightman. "I've noticed just recently that it's starting to come back and that's super hopeful," she said.

That devotion can lead to a sweet reward.

"Chicken and chocolate have come back so I'm really (fingers crossed) that Diet Coke is next," she said.

Experts recommend seeing your doctor before you start smell training to make sure something else isn't causing the problem.

It's important to have someone else smell the essential oil to make sure the fragrance is strong.

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Heather Simonsen
Heather Simonsen is a five-time Emmy Award-winning enterprise reporter for KSL-TV. Her expertise is in health and medicine, drug addiction, science and research, family, human interest and social issues. She is the host and producer of KSL-TV’s Positively 50+ initiative.


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