After eight weeks of calling, ENT-UK (the professional body for Ear, Nose and Throat surgeons) has stopped being ghosted by the chief medical officers of the UK. As of today, anosmia has been added to the list of symptoms and reasons to self-isolate as a result of Covid-19.
A collective, belated cheer.
There’s heavy criticism that the government have been slow to act, with some citing clinical negligence. It’s easy to see why, given eight weeks have now passed with undetected cases circulating none the wiser.
It’s also been eight weeks of frightened sufferers, contending with smell loss on top of potential coronavirus, without any explicit answers. So, as someone with two years of acquired, post-viral anosmia to reflect upon, here are some practical ways to cope – physically and mentally – of the onset of your loss.
Anosmia is largely misrepresented as both a loss of smell and taste. It is the loss of the sense of smell, either total or partial – taste is made of around 70% smell, making you think it’s gone, too. Professor Barry Smith of the University of London, says: “Is taste missing or dulled? Try putting just some salt on your tongue, then sugar, then lemon juice. Can you taste those? If so, it’s mainly your sense of smell that is affected.”
You’ll be surprised: your basic tastes of sweet, salty, umami, bitter and sour will still be there, albeit a bit dulled.
This isn’t meant to be as flippant as it seems. We’re in the gooey epicenter of a global pandemic; we have reason to not be chill – but try not to add another bit of coal to the fire.
If you’ve lost your sense of smell, keep in mind that these symptoms are usually temporary when related to coronavirus, and the sense returns once the virus has resolved.
Keep a log
Not a branch – you’re not a dog. Keep a diary of your encounters – food, drink, washing powder, someone else’s socks – anything. Rate your ability to smell, or not smell, these items. It may seem overwhelming in the beginning, but it’ll serve as a useful touchpoint.
Note any exercise you have done, too – this is anecdotal, but when I come back from a run I can usually smell something briefly. It passes, but it’s good to see trends where they occur (even if they are predominately sweat-related encounters).
Remember to eat
When I developed anosmia two years ago, food was the last thing on my mind. Every mouthful served as a reminder of my loss, so I would routinely dump quarter-eaten things in the bin, or throw them on the floor, or – my favourite – sob whilst I made them impossibly soggy inside my mouth.
Losing your ability to smell knocks out natural cues to feel hunger – that feeling you get when your mouth waters when you smell a freshly baked cake, or salty chips. Salivation is hard to find with anosmia, so sip water when you eat to make things easier to swallow.
When I eat, I play with textures for sensory pleasure, mixing crisp with soft – like pomegranate seeds in hummus, or crunchy seeds on top of soft porridge. The olfactory system (the place in your brain in charge of smell function) has a remarkable ability to regenerate after injury – so keep your body properly fuelled with nice things.
It sounds bizarre, and the practice is even more bizarre, but hear me out. You can stimulate the olfactory system with four scents; rose, lemon, clove and eucalyptus. You know those little glass jars you get in hotels filled with jam and marmalade? If you have any empty and lying around, they’re perfect for this.
Empty the jar and pop in a cotton pad at the base, then drop a few spots of essential oil on the pad. Then, smell train: mindfully smelling the different jars morning and night. Really try to imagine the scent as you do it.
This is hard work. I cried when I tried this two years ago, and gave up quickly. When you read a label and nothing smells even slightly, it’s painful. This is a case of do as I say, not as I do: there have been remarkable recoveries with smell training, and with dedication it can bring back losses.
Be open about your feelings
Some days suck. Everything feels like it’ll make you cry. The comfort you get from smells is inexplicable, and hard to replicate. Talk about how you feel. Tell your friends, family, whoever you’re living with (be that a partner or a cat or just a piece of furniture you chat at throughout the day). No-one really knows how to cope with it, or what the right answer is.
The solace is that, right now, there is more chance of someone going through the same thing as you. When I first Googled my condition two years ago, there were thin scrapings of articles and nothing concrete – and there was hardly any community to speak of. I felt alone, isolated, and misunderstood.
Today, there is a lively online community (on Facebook, the Congenital and Acquired Anosmia page; and similar content under the #anosmia and #olfactoryloss tags on Instagram and Twitter). There’s also me. I have gone in and out of wanting to help others, as the loss can be so bespoke and challenging to hear about when you’re no longer at stage one of grief.
If you’ve got it right now, I’ve got it too: so we’re in this together. Send me a message if you want some advice – and I promise I won’t ghost you for eight weeks like the chief medical officers in the UK.