Will I ever get my sense of smell back? Tips from a Covid-recovered Physical Therapist

sense of smell Covid recovery

Early on in the Covid-19 pandemic, I lost my sense of smell and taste. And I’ll be honest—it was depressing and scary because I wasn’t sure if I would ever get it back. If you’re dealing with the same symptom (technically, anosmia) then keep reading. In this post I’ll share the three things I did to speed my smell recovery and regain my sense of taste. 

Loss of Smell and Taste

New data show that nearly 11% of people with a Covid-19 infection experience partial or complete loss of smell for more than 6 weeks

And one study at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine found that 20% of participants didn’t recover their sense of smell even by 6 months after a Covid-19 infection. 

If you’re in a situation like this, your illness qualifies as “Long Covid”— which is defined as having Covid-19 symptoms for more than 12 weeks after an infection. 

I’m grateful that I didn’t have to experience “Long Covid.” Although my sense of taste and smell disappeared overnight, it only took about a month for them to fully recover. One month is certainly better than six, but it felt like a lifetime before I could taste my food and coffee. 

Besides taking all the enjoyment out of mealtimes, anosmia can be dangerous. You might not be able to smell smoke or fumes in your house or detect if the meat in your fridge has gone bad. 

So what can you do? I’m a PT, so of course my answer is: Therapy! But not just the resistance-bands-and-balance-board kind of therapy (although that’s great too). What you need is a new, widely-researched and promising recovery technique called smell therapy.

Research Behind Smell Recovery

Now, before diving into smell therapy and the research behind it, I want to encourage you to always turn to reputable sources for Covid information (or any medical information, for that matter). Don’t base a decision on some random comments you saw on YouTube about sketchy treatments or flat-out scams. Always check the science!

As a medical professional myself, I turn to research databases such as the National Library of Medicine from NIH (National Institutes of Health). You can search their PubMed library to find the latest research on medicine and treatments. 

While you’re there, look up “smell training” or “olfactory training.” The database lists over 2,000 papers regarding this topic—and that’s just from PubMed! Hop over to the ScienceDirect database if you need a few thousand more studies to read.  

Joking aside, I know science articles aren’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea.  They can be dry and difficult to follow. But if you have some time on your hands, you may want to check out this study, which inspired me to give smell training a try.

Smell Training: In a Nutshell

The idea behind smell training is what scientists call neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to adapt from a change or injury. In smell training, you’ll use potent smells to stimulate the olfactory part of your brain and trigger a response over time.  

Here’s how it works: every day for several weeks, you’ll sniff 4 strong scents 2-3 times a day. The key scents from the study I read were rose, cloves, eucalyptus, and lemon, to cover a wide range of smells. But you can also use familiar smells such as coffee beans, mint, and other citrus scents.

Practice smelling each scent for about 20 seconds and repeat 2 to 3 times a day, every day. I found it helpful to keep small jars of the scents on my kitchen counter, so that each time I walked by I would be reminded to practice.

Just be sure when you’re practicing your smell training to avoid one common mistake. I’ve seen many smell trainees take big whiffs of the scent, thinking that a bigger sniff will increase their chance of smelling. But the opposite is true. In order to keep the odor near the top of your nasal cavity—where smelling happens—you actually need to take short, small sniffs.

After deliberate, consistent smell training, you should start to detect your sense of smell coming back. It might just be a particular scent to start—for me, coffee beans—but if you keep at it, you should recover it all fully. Check out this post to learn more about smell training so you can get started today!

Other Strategies for Taste and Smell Recovery

As far as smell recovery treatments go, smell training certainly leads the way. Other treatments—such as taking corticosteroids—are not widely recommended for smell loss and could have negative side effects. Despite its simplicity, smell training is your best shot. But if you want to help your recovery even more, try these other two strategies. 

Simplify Your Diet

As I worked to recover my sense of smell, I began to track my food intake and simplify my diet. I couldn’t smell or even taste most foods unless they were exceptionally salty. But eating really salty foods like chips—and adding salt to everything else—isn’t great for overall health. 

So in addition to tracking my food, I tried to simplify my food intake. I kept my breakfasts pretty plain: a small amount of oatmeal or even a piece of toast. For lunch I’d have leftovers, such as pasta or grilled chicken. I usually had a protein shake in the afternoon, and for dinner we prepared normal meals. Otherwise, I avoided soda, alcohol, or any other fluids besides water. 

What was my reasoning? Well, when you can’t taste or smell anything, most food is bland and unappealing. But it’s important to continue to eat nourishing foods and avoid pointless junk foods that could have negative health effects, besides simply adding empty calories to your diet.

Avoid Anti-inflammatory Foods

On a related note, data now suggest that anosmia may in fact be an inflammatory response of the olfactory receptors. It would make sense, then, to try to limit foods that increase inflammatory responses. 

This might not be a surprise to you, but when it comes to foods that cause an inflammatory response, processed sugar tops the list. Limiting the amount of sugar in your diet is a good idea anytime, and it’s not so hard when you can’t taste anything. 

Other inflammatory foods include anything containing artificial trans fats, refined carbohydrates, and seed oils. You’ll also do well to reduce your intake of red meat and alcohol. In their place, incorporate more anti-inflammatory foods, such as leafy greens, fatty fish, fruit (think blueberries and cherries), and green tea.

I’m not a nutritionist or your healthcare provider, but I know these simple strategies helped me as I recovered my sense of smell. Trying them certainly can’t hurt—unlike many sketchy scams circulating the internet these days.

Covid Recovery Exercises

If you’re feeling not just senseless but also listless and weak, check out these 5 exercises for post-Covid recovery. The accompanying exercise worksheet will help you stay on track with your progress so that you can feel fully better soon!

Tim Fraticelli, DPT Physical Therapist

Tim Fraticelli is a Physical Therapist, Certified Financial Planner™ and founder of PTProgress.com. He loves to teach PTs and OTs ways to save time and money in and out of the clinic, especially when it comes to documentation or continuing education. Follow him on YouTube for weekly videos on ways to improve your financial health.