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Ways to regain senses of smell and taste after COVID-19

St. Louis doctors say "scent training" may help

ST. LOUIS — Some people who had COVID-19 are looking for ways to regain their senses of smell and taste.

Doctors are working with patients on a variety of treatments from therapy to medication.

Jim Dean from St. Louis County tested positive for COVID-19 in November

"I was considered severe," Dean said. "It lasted for about 30 days total." 

Months later, Dean says peanut butter and pasta sauce taste foul. He describes certain foods as "metallic" and others as "sewage-like". 

Dean told 5 On Your Side he thought he was going crazy. 

It's a feeling Dr. Jay Piccirillo a Professor of Otolaryngology at Washington University School of Medicine says is typical.

"It's very disorienting for the patients and we've had people say 'you know doc, when I had no sense of smell that was better than what I have now, the parosmia can be very disturbing," Dr. Piccirillo said.

Dean is likely experiencing parosmia, the name for when something doesn't smell like it should. So what can people do to regain their sense of smell?

Dr. Jastin Antisdel is a SLUCare Otolaryngologist at SSM Health Saint Louis University Hospital suggests retraining therapy for some patients. 

"In the studies that we do we actually have sticks with oils on them that are very strong smelling, whether it's lemon or coffee, etcetera," Dr. Antisdel said.

Smelling strong scents may help regain taste too. 

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"The senses of smell and the sense of taste are related and if somebody has lost smell, that will impact their ability to taste food," explains Dr. Piccirillo, "we are seeing that with COVID."

Dr. Piccirillo is currently working on two studies at Washington University, both trying to see if patients can recover their sense of smell with calculated treatments. 

One study is a virtual trial involving 400 patients from across the United States.

"What we're asking in this trial is, 'Does the olfactory training, the smell training work?' and in particular 'does olfactory training work when the patients themselves get to pick the smells that they train on," said Dr. Piccirillo.

Traditionally scientists have limited scent studies to distinctive smells like eucalyptus, rose, lemon and clove. 

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"Many of our St Louis patients have asked what's eucalyptus and why do I want to train on that?," Dr. Piccirillo said.

The second study involves an asthma medication, theophylline, and nasal rinsing. Dr. Piccirillo plans to wrap up both studies by the summer. 

Doctors recommend confirming COVID-19 as the culprit for loss of taste or smell before starting smell training. 

"If you don't know if you've had COVID or not, and you have the loss of sense of smell, you need to go see your ear, nose and throat doctor," Dr. Antisdel said. "Because it can come from other reasons. They can have a tumor in their nose, there's all sorts of things that we want to make sure first."