Courtney Wightman sniffs essential oils daily to help her regain her sense of smell and taste after COVID-19. (Heather Simonsen, KSL TV)
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SALT LAKE CITY – Lack of smell and taste are some of the most common symptoms of COVID-19, affecting up to 85% of patients, according to the National Institutes of Health. For some, those symptoms have persisted for months, but a new therapy holds great promise.
If you’ve ever felt like up is down, or in is out, you may be in a relationship with Courtney Wightman.
“I can’t remember what garlic is supposed to smell like,” Wightman said. “I got my morning Diet Coke. I took sips and I thought, ‘There’s something weird about this. It tastes like onions.”
Her sense of smell has been disabled since she contracted COVID-19 in January. Even spa scents, like eucalyptus, are just wrong. “I can still smell that garbage smell,” Wightman said.
Smell affects the taste and severely restricts her diet. “I’ve eaten SO many quesadillas. It felt like, ‘What am I living for?’ Because to me, life is the same as food.”
dr. Alexander Ramirez, medical director of the clinical program in otolaryngology at Intermountain Healthcare, said he has had success with fragrance therapy. He described it as physiotherapy for the nose.
As part of the process, patients smell certain odors in a certain way.
“Eucalyptus, cloves, lemon and rose, because that represents the spectrum,” Ramirez said. “But it’s just as powerful to use something really strong, something that’s terrible or good.”
He recommended doing “bunny sniffs,” three short sniffs in quick succession, rather than one long inhalation through the nose, which is less effective.
Evidence that the therapy works is limited, but a 2021 study published by the National Center for Biotechnology looked at a number of independent studies of scent therapy for a variety of post-viral patients and suggested it’s helpful.
“Twenty seconds of that, give it a break, go to the next, four different scents, twice a day for three months,” Ramirez said. You also need to visualize the smell. “So that part of the brain can reroute itself and remember how it should smell.”
Recovery could take 12-16 months, Ramirez said.
It’s starting to work for Wightman. “I’ve noticed recently that it’s starting to come back and that’s super hopeful,” she said.
That dedication can lead to a sweet reward.
“Chicken and chocolate have come back, so I’m really (fingers crossed) Diet Coke is next,” she said.
Experts recommend checking with your doctor before starting scent training to make sure something else isn’t causing the problem.
It’s important to let someone else smell the essential oil to make sure the scent is strong.