The sweet smell of … everything

Woman smelling hot cup of coffee

The first whiff of a morning cup of coffee. The irresistible fragrance of a beautiful flower. A cake burning in the oven. Most people don’t recognize the importance of smell in their lives – until they lose it. Unfortunately, one of the most common symptoms of COVID-19 is the loss of smell.

Not being able to smell might seem like a minor annoyance, at least compared to life-threatening COVID-19 complications. But to dismiss the loss of smell is to ignore how important it is to enjoy life’s simple pleasures like a delicious meal, the irresistible aroma of freshly baked bread, or the festive scent of a pine tree. The sense of smell can also alert us to danger – such as fire or natural gas odor.

Washington University otolaryngologist, Jay Piccirillo, MD, is a head and neck surgeon who specializes in comprehensive ear, nose and throat (ENT) problems. Dr. Piccirillo says, “COVID-19 can cause loss of smell because the supporting cells that surround the olfactory cells (sensory nerve that functions for the sense of smell) in the nose get infected and don’t function properly, leading to dysfunction of the olfactory cells.  Most of the time taste also is affected since smell and taste work together to create flavor.

Over time, as the infection passes, olfactory function usually (but not always) returns. About 50% of people who had COVID-19 lost their sense of smell and taste. The average time for recovery of smell and taste is two weeks. However, with increasing passage of time, and as weeks turn into months, the likelihood decreases to fully regain both senses.”

Dr. Piccirillo adds that nasal saline lavage with steroid can be useful in helping regain sense of smell.

An unexpected side-effect of the loss of smell is called parosmia. Dr. Piccirillo explains, “Parosmia, or distortion of smell, can occur as the individual is beginning to recover his or her sense of smell. For example, a flower might smell like rotting meat, or hand soap may smell like sewage. Unfortunately, there is no treatment for parosmia, only time.”

It goes without saying the best treatment is prevention. Wear a mask, practice social distancing and get vaccinated for COVID-19.

For more information or to make an appointment with Dr. Piccirillo or one of the other sinus specialists, please schedule online or call 314-362-7509.

Center for Advanced Medicine
4921 Parkview Place, Suite 11A
St. Louis, MO 63110

Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital – Medical Building 4
1044 North Mason, Suite L20
Creve Coeur, MO 63141