Researchers Study Loss of Smell in COVID Patients
NICE, FRANCE (AP) – –
Loss of sense of smell and taste is a recognised symptom of COVID-19 – and for some patients it is a long-lasting one.
Researchers in France are studying virus survivors to learn more about the condition.
Evan Cesa used to relish meal times. Now they’re a chore.
A family dinner of fish in September that suddenly seemed flavourless was the first indication that COVID-19 had attacked the 18-year-old sport student’s senses.
Foodstuffs became mere textures, with only residual hints of sweet and saltiness. Five months later, breakfasting on chocolate cookies before classes, Cesa still chews without joy, as though swallowing cardboard.
“Sometimes I skip meals because it’s not worth eating, because I waste time and have no desire for it. I used to take pleasure in eating, all sorts of dishes and snacks. Now, I just don’t want it,” he says.
“This has caused me to lose 1.5 kg. It’s a bit annoying.”
Cesa is among the anosmia (loss of smell) sufferers being studied by researchers in Nice.
Before the pandemic, the scientists had been using scents in the diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. They also used comforting fragrances in the treatment of post-traumatic stress among children after a truck attack in Nice in 2016, when a driver ploughed through holiday crowds on the Mediterranean city’s beach front boulevard, killing 86 people.
Now they are turning their expertise to COVID-19.
They have teamed up with perfumers from the nearby fragrance-producing town of Grasse.
Researcher Alexandra Plonka wafts some containers of scent under Cesa’s nose to test his olfactory impairment.
Cesa had multiple fails – even at the most pungent concentrations, he draws a complete blank with the scent of jasmine.
The scent of roses smells like walnuts to him and he also misidentifies lavender, chocolate and pears. Only the smell of almonds is a success.
“What had you reaction to was almond. Almonds had a smell that meant something to you. You smelt it straight away and identified it instantly,” Plonka tells him.
The battery of examinations on Cesa and other patients also includes language and attention tests.
The Nice researchers are exploring whether patients’ olfactory complaints are linked to COVID-related cognitive difficulties, including problems with concentrating on tasks.
“Just by stimulating the sense of smell and with at-home rehab kits, you see an improvement of olfaction. What we hope is to improve the treatment to make them broader and get back all these nuances and memories of these tastes and smells that are linked together,” says Auriane Gros, neuroscience project manager.
Dr Clair Vandersteen is an otorhinolaryngologist at the Face and Neck University Institute in Nice.
Today he’s treating patient Gabriella Forgione.
The 25-year-old pharmacy worker lost her sense of smell and taste when she fell ill with COVID-19 in November.
Vandersteen slides a tiny camera into her nostril.
It’s uncomfortable but Forgione is happy to be prodded and poked in advance her increasingly pressing quest to recover her lost senses.
Being deprived of the pleasures of food and the scents of things that she loves is proving tough on her body and mind.
Forgione is losing weight and self-confidence.
“Sometimes I tell myself, ‘today’s the day I’m going to eat something I feel like having’. But I still can’t taste anything so… disappointed,” she says.
“It’s been three months and it’s starting to feel very long.”
Even specialist doctors say there is much about the condition that they still don’t understand and that they are continuing to learn as they go along in their diagnoses and treatments.
Impairment and alteration of smell have become so startlingly common with COVID-19 that some researchers suggest that cheap and simple odour tests could be used to track coronavirus infections in countries with few laboratories.
For most people, the olfactory problems are temporary, often improving on their own in weeks.
But a small minority are complaining of persistent dysfunction long after any other COVID-19 symptoms have disappeared.
A few are reporting continued total or partial loss of smell six months after infection.
The longest, some doctors say, are now approaching a full year of enduring olfactory difficulties.
Vandersteen is hopeful his patient will eventually recover.
“These are disorders that will probably correct themselves through olfactive rehabilitation and the reappearance of her sense of smell but there is still a question mark,” he says.
“I’m not worried because we saw that she was a very lively young woman but I stay focused on this symptom and these olfactive disorders for which we don’t really know what the consequences could be.”
Researchers working on the non-lethal but, for long-term sufferers, terribly vexing disability say they are optimistic that most will eventually recover.
But they suspect that some will not.
Some doctors are concerned that growing numbers of anosmia patients, many of them young, could be more prone to depression and other difficulties and weigh on already strained health systems.