When sense of smell is affected, people feel they can’t function properly and can feel isolated, separated from reality and generally very weird
‘Between 50 and 60 per cent of people who’ve had Covid have had a problem with their sense of smell,’ says Chrissi Kelly, the founder of Abscent (abscent.org), a charity set up in 2019 to help people with smell loss (also known as anosmia). One in ten people will have persistent smell loss after Covid – which can last for months.
Chrissi lost all sense of smell for two years after a sinus infection, and knows how devastating it can be. ‘Anosmia can have serious mental health implications,’ she says. ‘Sense of smell is centred in the brain and is connected to the nervous system. Therefore, when it’s affected, people feel they can’t function properly and can feel isolated, separated from reality and generally very weird.’ This is often described by psychologists as depersonalisation – feeling detached from oneself. It can be frightening, and, as Chrissi says, ‘two things need treating – smell loss and the anxiety around it’.
Chrissi also had severe parosmia ‒ a little-understood disorder common with Covid, where smells can be distorted or seem repellent. People with it find familiar aromas repugnant – for example, coffee can smell like sewage. Other scents that trigger it can be fried, roasted, toasted or grilled foods, onions, chocolate, garlic and eggs. ‘Some people who have it can’t sit at a table to eat or cook for their family,’ Chrissi says.
So why is our sense of smell so affected by Covid? ‘The virus gets into the body through the olfactory system,’ Chrissi explains, ‘and affects olfactory receptors. With parosmia, it is believed that the virus causes disturbance to the olfactory nerves, which send mixed messages to our brain.’
There are many other causes of smell loss, from the common cold and sinusitis to head trauma, allergies, nasal polyps, drug abuse and smoking. According to Abscent, an estimated five per cent of people in the UK are affected by smell loss – that’s 3.25 million – with 15 per cent affected by hyposmia (reduced sense of smell). And these numbers are continuing to grow as a result of the pandemic.
So what can you do if you’re affected? Firstly, rule out anything serious as a cause: if you’re worried, contact your GP. If your mental health is suffering because of smell loss, talk to a therapist who can help target the anxiety or depression surrounding it. If you have post-virus or head trauma smell loss, Chrissi recommends ‘smell training’, which she says helped her to recover. This involves actively sniffing the same four scents every day, spending around 20 seconds on each and really concentrating as you do it. ‘If you don’t smell anything to begin with, do not give up,’ she says. ‘It’s about the mindfulness and using your brain that makes it work.’
Smell training is not a quick fix – you need to do it twice daily for a minimum of four months to help recovery. ‘It’s a form of physiotherapy,’ says Chrissi, ‘a bit like stroke rehabilitation.’
You can smell-train yourself with different scents, or Abscent has produced Smell Training Kits, £34.99, which contain four distinct natural aromas. Chrissi is living proof of the sweet smell of their success.
My pick of the mixers
If you’re trying to shift the Covid kilos, don’t pretend your alcohol calorie contents don’t count. For tasty, low-calorie mixers with no artificial sweeteners go to twelvebelow.co.uk. Tonic flavours include Apple & Garden Mint and Pear & Cardamom, £23.95 for 12 x 500ml bottles.
The Sweet Dreams Amethyst Sleep Spray, £20, llio.love
The crystal clear way to nod off
Llio is a divine brand of aromatherapy products that puts crystals at the bottom of its bottles. The Sweet Dreams Amethyst Sleep Spray (£20, llio.love) – containing lavender, vetiver, geranium and rosewood combined with chunks of amethyst – has me drifting off before my head hits the pillow.