Smell Loss Is One Symptom Of COVID-19 That Essential Oils Might Ease
Zara Patel, M.D., an associate professor otolaryngology-head and neck surgery (ENT) at Stanford, has been helping patients regain their sense of smell for years. She tells mbg that post-viral olfactory loss—a condition where one's sense of smell is damaged following an illness—is actually relatively common, though not as much attention was paid to it until the CDC named loss of smell a possible symptom of COVID-19.
Temporarily losing your ability to smell when you have a virus is normal, but sometimes this symptom can linger even after the rest of your body recovers. Patel says that age and pre-existing conditions play a role in how likely you are to develop post-viral olfactory loss—as does the aggressiveness of your virus. It's still too early to say how likely the coronavirus is to cause long-term smell issues. However, if you, or someone you know, has recovered from the disease but still struggle to catch a whiff of your favorite scent, it's something you should take seriously.
"If a patient comes to see me within a week of having lost their sense of smell, there is a lot more I can do to help that person bring back their smell versus someone who waits a year or longer," Patel explains. "It's very difficult at that point to try to switch back on that regenerative capacity of the system."
How olfactory training with essential oils might help people regain some sense of smell.
Olfactory training, the process of regularly and repeatedly smelling certain things, is one approach that can help your sense of smell return. Interestingly enough, sniffing something like perfume or coffee does not benefit smell—and can actually do more harm than good. Since these contain many different types of odors, smelling them may confuse your olfactory neurons even more and cause you to associate them with unpleasantly metallic or chemical odors.
One accessible tool that does seem to be helpful for olfactory training? Essential oils. In one 2017 clinical trial, Patel and a team of researchers found that patients who "smell trained" with essential oils were twice as likely to improve their sense of smell than those who did not. This is because essential oils tend to have one distinct odor molecule. Smelling them can be a way to focus your attention on what that specific scent used to mean for you and what sorts of memories it drums up.
"What we're doing by using the essential oils in olfactory training is using the memory of them as a pathway—a sort of map through which the correct synaptic connection can be made again," Patel explains.
Since the olfactory nerve is unique in the way it travels directly through the memory center of the brain, smells have a special way of evoking of memory. When you smell oils from a variety of families—floral, fruity, aromatic, and resinous are some biggies—you are stimulating multiple facets of odor to come back.
"What's important is that you focus your memory specifically on what that smell used to smell like for you," she adds. "By focusing that way, you're actually trying to recreate a new synaptic pathway back from the olfactory epithelium that's in your nasal cavity at the top all the way back to the olfactory cortex."
Can essential oils help diagnose COVID-19 too?
There is no research to suggest that essential oils can also be helpful for diagnosing COVID-19. However, Patel says it would make logical sense that if an essential oil—or really any other scent that you are familiar with—starts to smell off, it would indicate that something is going on with your smell. "That doesn't necessarily mean that it's COVID-19," Patel cautions, "but it would be an indication you should investigate further."
The bottom line.
As people continue to recover from COVID-19, this interesting connection between viruses, smell loss, and memory will become even more important. If you have recovered from the coronavirus but are still having trouble smelling things around you or finding that familiar scents suddenly smell different, consider seeing a doctor to inquire about post-viral olfactory loss (and stocking up on a few essential oils).
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Emma Loewe is the Senior Sustainability Editor at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 articles on mbg, her work has appeared on Bloomberg News, Marie Claire, Bustle, and Forbes. She has covered everything from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping to a group of doctors prescribing binaural beats for anxiety. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.