Anosmia can lead to anxiety, depression and a deep sense of sadness. Could olfactory training be the solution?

It can be difficult to imagine the emotional impact of losing your sense of smell.

Scent is tied to everything – from the way our food tastes to the smell of our loved ones. Imagine not being able to smell freshly roasted coffee or the wafting aroma of flowers. Or the fear of being unable to detect poisonous fumes, smoke from a fire, body odor or even the smell of spoiled food.

In The Scent of Desire, a book that delves into the mysteries and wonder of our sense of smell, Dr Rachel Herz writes about the despair of living in a scentless world.

“For those with this devastating condition called anosmia, everything changes,” Dr Herz writes. “Our sense of smell is essential to our humanity. Scents influence our social relationships and family ties, and they fuel our passions for people and food.”

With reports of anosmia appearing in up to 60% of COVID-19 patients, an international collaboration of scientists, clinicians and scholars has launched a global survey in the hope of finding clues between the virus and its effects on smell and taste.

Black & white close-up photo of young girl smelling a flower | Appellation aromas

How to train your sense of smell

In the meantime, to speed up the recovery of virus related anosmia, some ENT physicians are recommending a therapy called “olfactory training” – encouraging patients to “train” their noses to increase smell sensitivity.

How does this work? Patients simply sniff a selection of fruity, flowery, spicy and resinous odors – such as lemon, rose, clove and eucalyptus – every day, in the morning and evening, for 10 seconds at a time over a period of 12 weeks. 

The method is based on a 2009 study by Professor Thomas Hummel of the Smell and Taste Clinic at the University of Dresden in Germany. By regularly sniffing a variety of odors from the “fragrance prism”, a classification system similar to the way we classify flavours sweet, bitter, sour, salty or umami, patients are stimulating the part of the brain that processes odiferous messages.

Even short-term training can lead to improvement in olfactory function, which is heartening for anyone suffering from post-viral anosmia – and useful for anyone hoping to boost their sense of smell. Best of all, Professor Hummel’s method is easy to replicate at home with essential oils or even pantry and fruit bowl staples like cinnamon or lemon.

While the loss of smell and taste linked to coronavirus appears to be temporary, other sufferers will never regain their sense of smell. It's particularly tragic when you consider anosmia affects millions of people around the world. It’s a silent handicap that can lead to enormous emotional loss.

For the lucky ones, pay attention to your neglected sense. It truly is a gift. Don’t take it for granted.

"The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and a scented massage every day"

- Hippocrates
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