Local doctors explain what causes loss of smell and taste for COVID-19 patients; offer suggestions on possible treatments

Coronavirus

NORFOLK, Va. (WAVY) — It’s one of the symptoms that sets the coronavirus apart from many other diseases: a loss of senses like taste or smell.

Some people get it for a few days, some have it much longer.

Just last week, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said he got COVID-19 one year ago, and still cannot taste or smell anything.

“If you have chosen not to get a shot, there probably isn’t much I can say that will change your mind,” said Northam. “So I’ll say, just this: I had COVID back before the vaccines existed. Believe me, you don’t want to get it. A year later — my case was back in September — a year later, I still can’t smell anything or taste anything.”

10 On Your Side spoke with local experts on Monday to learn what people need to know about these symptoms.

Doctors in Hampton Roads say losing smell or taste can happen with other viruses, but it’s not nearly as common. With COVID-19, it is a very common symptom. For some people, it’s a feeling that takes weeks or even months to go away.

“The viral infection can affect the smelling nerve, and when a virus damages the smelling nerve, that’s when we lose our sense of smell,” said Dr. Joseph Han, director of the American Rhinologic Society and professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School.

Han says you want to try to get your sense of smell back as soon as possible. However, that’s easier said than done.

“Smell is so important and when you get COVID-19, whether or not you get your sense of smell back, is almost unpredictable,” said Han. “Sometimes it could be a couple of days, sometimes it could be longer.”

There isn’t one specific way to get your smell back, but something that could help is olfactory training, or smelling familiar scents and thinking about what they should smell like.

“If you have a sense of smell and your sense of smell is there, what you’re trying to do is re-train your body…retrain your brain to try to get your sense of smell back,” said Han.

However, it might not work for everyone.

Dr. Xian Qiao, a pulmonary critical care specialist with Sentara, says results of that method have been hit or miss with his patients.

He says, if you can’t smell, be careful what you eat.

“When you don’t have taste and smell, it’s possible that you’re going to eat some spoiled food,” said Qiao.

Qiao also urges people to not panic and be patient.

“Most of our patients will recover with this. It’s just going to take some time. Unfortunately, we do not know how much time it will take,” he said.

Both Qiao and Han urge people to speak with their doctors before trying any at-home treatments.

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