COVID’s toll on smell and taste: Mid-South doctors weigh in on what we know

MEMPHIS, TENN. — One of the most common symptoms of the coronavirus is loss of taste and smell.

Health experts estimate more than 80 percent of COVID patients lose at least some of those senses after contracting the virus.

It’s so common some doctors say businesses and workplaces should conduct ‘smell checks’ instead of temperature checks when screening for the virus.

Some people regain their senses right away, while others who got the virus months ago still haven’t gotten them back.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Manoj Jain, who also serves on the Shelby County COVID-19 Joint Task Force, said the complications can be dangerous.

“You can be in your house and not smell gas,” he said. “It can also cause depression and anxiety because we take pleasure in eating the foods we enjoy.”

Jain said those who have milder cases of the virus seem to be more susceptible to losing their sense of taste and smell. He said it has to do with the unique way the virus affects nerve cells in the nose.

“What the virus does is causes inflammation of the nerve cells,” Jain said. “In fact, our nerve cells have those ACE receptors which the virus hooks onto and it causes them to sort of swell.”

Jain a said in about 25 percent of COVID patients, loss of taste and smell is their only symptom.

While most patients regain their senses within a couple months, some experience the loss long term. Infectious disease specialist Dr. Steve Threlkeld said some patients seek out treatments to learn how to smell again.

“Sometimes we can help by taking smells and smelling them over and over and trying to remember what they smelled like before,” he said. “There are some behavior therapists working on that right now.”

Threlkeld said in some cases, patients will smell something that is not actually there.

“What we think could be happening is that the cells are repairing and rewiring themselves and aren’t coming out exactly how they did the first time,” he said.

Though there are no drugs currently on the market to help with regaining senses, both doctors say it could be a possibility in the future as more research is done.