COVID Has Caused Millions to Lose their Sense of Smell—One Writer’s Journey to a Scentless Life and
LIKE MILLIONS OF OTHER PEOPLE, I lost my sense of smell last spring when I contracted COVID-19. As Brooklyn was descending into lockdown in the middle of March—all of us frantically washing our chapped hands and learning the choreographies of social distancing—I was entering two weeks of total quarantine: shivery nights and throbbing muscle aches; my abilities to smell and taste suddenly hiding on the other side of an invisible wall.
While the sirens wailed beyond our apartment windows, I was sequestered not only from the world but from my own senses—taunted by clementine oranges and cookie dough and peanut butter and lilies and green-apple dish soap; taunted even by missing things whose smell I’d never loved: plain yogurt, Windex, the stink of my daughter’s diaper bin when I’d forgotten to empty it. These smells were also life. They were part of being in the world, part of being implicated in it and addressed and gloriously invaded by it. They felt so present in their absence.
Helen Keller once called smell the “fallen angel” of our senses because we don’t appreciate it fully.
If I learned anything through lack, it took the form of yearning and memory, a library of all the smells I missed: the yeasty bloom of my mom’s homemade bread fresh from the oven and the treacly sweetness of honey melting onto its brown heel; the smoke of clove cigarettes on an Iowa porch in the chill autumn months when, as a graduate student, I was too shy to make small talk with the other writers, so I kept myself busy smoking instead; the intoxicating smell of gasoline after I got my driver’s license; or, decades later, the aquatic ribbons of chlorine lifting through the sidewalk vents of an underground pool near my Brooklyn apartment. In the bleak depths of winter, sudden wafts from that pool on my morning commute would remind me of the existence of summer.
Helen Keller once called smell the “fallen angel” of our senses because we don’t appreciate it fully. Though her own sense of smell, sharpened by her lack of vision and hearing, was acute enough to detect a storm in the air before it arrived—and she recognized smell as “a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived”—she also knew how much we took its wizardry for granted. As Thomas Hummel, M.D., a researcher at the University of Dresden and one of the world’s foremost experts in clinical olfactory issues, put it, “Ask people what sense they would sacrifice and many people would say…‘my sense of smell,’ but many of these people, they would not anticipate what this means to them.”
Every smell scientist I spoke to for this story echoed some version of this sentiment: that smell is underappreciated and misunderstood, and most people fail to recognize how integral it is to our experience of pleasure, our emotional lives, and even, on a fundamental level, our identity. But there are many studies demonstrating profound links between anosmia (the clinical term for smell loss) and clinical depression. One such study, recounted in Rachel Herz’s The Scent of Desire, compared the psychological effects of vision loss and smell loss, and yielded startling results: While patients who lost their vision were initially more traumatized, over time they acclimated more significantly than the patients who had lost their sense of smell—who, a year later, actually reported a more enduring decrease in their quality of life than the patients who had gone blind.
WHY DOES SMELL MATTER SO MUCH? Sandeep Robert Datta, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, describes the olfactory system as “ancient and primal,” entangled in a constant “pas de deux with our amygdala.” It’s the only sense with a direct link to our limbic system, the part of the brain responsible for our core emotional processing—often called the lizard brain, or literally the “nose brain.” Smell is the sense we use to connect to our mothers immediately after birth. The involuntary nature of smell makes it feel more like a force we surrender to rather than a function of agency. It’s something that happens to us.
As Hummel points out, people don’t understand that if they lose the sense of smell, “they lose flavor…they lose interpersonal communication…they lose a warning system.” In a study published in 2013 surveying 1,000 patients with partial or total smell loss, some compared eating to chewing on sawdust or cardboard, and reported either losing weight because they lost interest in food or else gaining weight because, as one reflected, “I am never fully satisfied.” (One patient responded, “The only reason I eat now is to relieve hunger pains. I get no enjoyment from eating.”) Thirty-two percent reported enjoying intimacy less, and 66 percent reported feeling more anxiety. Hummel told me about a woman who came into his clinic and said she was more devastated by her smell loss than her breast cancer diagnosis.
Smell is a crucial part of desire, from Napoleon Bonaparte’s alleged request to Josephine that she not bathe before he returned home from battle to the “love apples” of the Elizabethan era: peeled apples women would saturate with their underarm sweat.
Hummel also told me that he has noticed consistent gaps between male and female anosmia patients: While men often complain about something related to taste, how their beer tastes like sudsy dishwater, women most frequently complain about something relational—like not being able to smell their children. It doesn’t take a postdoc in neurobiology to understand that smell is a crucial part of desire, from Napoleon Bonaparte’s alleged request to Josephine that she not bathe before he returned home from battle to the “love apples” of the Elizabethan era: peeled apples women would saturate with their underarm sweat before giving them to their beloveds. And if you lose your sense of smell, then you lose an important key to many of the memories that compose your sense of identity. As Afif Aqrabawi, Ph.D., a neuroscientist at MIT who studies the relationship between smell and memory, told me, it’s not that you don’t have the memories anymore but that they aren’t being triggered with the same level of visceral immediacy. To put it simply: You have fewer emotional experiences each day. Bradley Goldstein, M.D., an ENT surgeon and scientist at Duke University, told me about an anosmia patient who returned home to the Caribbean island where she’d grown up and, because she couldn’t smell anything—the flowers, the air, her mother’s cooking—didn’t even feel like she’d arrived: “I just started crying. I was like, ‘I’m not even here.’ ” When you lose smell, you are not only losing the world around you—one patient described it as “living in a box”—but also losing access to the internal landscape of your own past. As another patient put it: “I live in a permanent present.”
When Aqrabawi described one of the experiments he runs with his mice, in which he motivates them to dig for chocolate by triggering the memory of the smell of chocolate—actually, the smell of Nutella—he told me that they eventually end up getting so agitated by the absence of chocolate that they start eating wood chips. It’s the mismatch between what they perceive and what’s actually there that aggravates them. Hearing about their agitation summoned memories from earlier this year of eating spoonfuls of Nutella that tasted like mahogany-brown glue, though my frustration had been the opposite of theirs: Something was there, but I couldn’t perceive it. I wasn’t experiencing just the loss of pleasure—though losing the taste of Nutella is a grave wound, indeed—but the disorienting vertigo of that gap between my senses and the world.
When you lose smell, you are not only losing the world around you but also losing access to the internal landscape of your own past.
Many people struggling with long-term anosmia report that others often forget their condition or trivialize it. “It is a disablement that is invisible,” says one patient. “People are always saying, ‘Smell that,’ ‘Taste this.’ It is very annoying; you wouldn’t tell a blind man to look at the lovely scenery.” Chrissi Kelly, a mother living in Hampshire, England, who lost her sense of smell after a bad sinus infection in 2012, felt that one of the hardest parts was the impossibility of explaining the loss: “People think, Okay, I’ll hold my nose and that’ll be it. But it’s not like that. It’s elemental, as if I said, ‘Imagine a world without gravity.’ ” Kelly sank into clinical depression about six months into her anosmia—what she describes as a “cold bell descending over my head”—and hit “rock bottom” a few months later, deeply missing smell as “the thing that makes you feel like you’re actually a part of the universe and not just a shadow.” It was after two years of anosmia that Kelly finally started to smell again, and she remembers the experience vividly: She and her husband were driving down a winding mountain road past a towering pile of freshly cut logs. She told her husband to pull over and got out of the car, knelt down by the side of the road, and brought palmfuls of sawdust close to her face—it had just rained, so the shavings were damp and fragrant. To this day, she told me, the smell of lumber still brings her right back to the sensation of dropping to her knees on that mountainside.
MY OWN RETURN TO SMELL wasn’t as cinematic as kneeling awestruck on a mountainside. It happened at my kitchen table while I was feeding my toddler sliced bananas slathered with peanut butter. But it felt miraculous: that first whiff of nutty sweetness and the urgent, nearly feral impulse to eat a creamy gob straight from the spoon. The next few days were devoted to feverish pursuit of scent—I was still in isolation, so had little else to do—as I tried to determine what I could smell (oranges, tomatoes, dirty diapers) and what I couldn’t (cucumbers, sugar cookies, cheddar cheese). I couldn’t tell if the faint, almost floral taste of cantaloupe was really there or not. It kept flickering in and out, like a stuttering light bulb. Those first few whiffs returned after two weeks of anosmia, and after another two weeks I estimated that I’d returned to something like 70 percent of my sense of smell. Nearly five months later, my sense of smell is almost fully back—or so close I can’t tell the difference.
A recent study that Datta coauthored, based on research from his Harvard lab and other labs across the world, helps explain why so many COVID patients regain their sense of smell after a relatively short period of time, and offers insight into how COVID affects the olfactory system. Because the virus appears to infect support cells, rather than directly damaging sensory neurons, approximately 80 to 85 percent of COVID patients who lose their sense of smell will regain it after two to six weeks. For the remaining 10 to 15 percent who experience more long-term smell loss, it’s probably due to secondary damage to the neurons themselves, along with possible damage to the olfactory stem cells responsible for neuron regeneration.
As one of the symptoms most strongly correlated with COVID infection, smell loss has already been playing a crucial role as a diagnostic and self-diagnostic tool; anosmia is often a useful signal to quarantine for people who might otherwise unwittingly spread the virus to others, and Datta told me that hospitals are starting to experiment with scratch-and-sniff tests as possible screening tools for entry. While the results of Datta’s study are encouraging in their suggestion that most COVID patients will experience only temporary smell loss, he believes that we are still facing a significant public-health crisis insofar as the people who experience long-term anosmia due to COVID (potentially numbering in the hundreds of thousands) will undergo “a profoundly destabilizing and displacing experience.”
When Kelly launched an anosmia Facebook group in 2015, she wanted to create a resource for a small, largely invisible community—she can still remember thinking, Yahoo! when she reached 100 members—never imagining that five years later she would be suddenly flooded by folks who had lost their sense of smell during the pandemic. “It’s like you’re having a nice cocktail party,” she told me, “and all of a sudden the doorbell rings and a horde of loud, angry people arrive.” By late March, she had created a separate group for the COVID folks, not only to keep the numbers more manageable but also because it could be dispiriting for people with long-term anosmia when those recovering from COVID reported such quick turnarounds. By mid-August, the original AbScent Facebook group and its COVID spin-off had more than 9,000 members in total. It was as if the COVID anosmics were tourists in the shadowland where these folks had been permanently exiled.
WHEN SMELL CAME BACK TO ME in April, it was actually faintly embarrassing how ecstatic I was at its return. I felt a tug of shame at my own animal nature, how much these visceral pleasures mattered to me. I texted my friend a photograph of a cantaloupe slivered into crescents, leaking juicy seeds onto the counter, with a line of exclamation points beneath it, but it felt like a betrayal to use visual information to express the restoration of something that felt like it was happening in my marrow.
“Smell is the mute sense, the one without words,” writes Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of the Senses. “Lacking a vocabulary, we are left tongue-tied, groping for words in a sea of inarticulate pleasure and exaltation.” But our impoverished language for scent is not universal. A researcher named Asifa Majid has documented tribes of hunter-gatherers who possess smell words akin to red, blue, and green in English color naming. So it is possible to name the tones and tints of a smell; it’s just a question of necessity and practice.
It was as if the COVID anosmics were tourists in the shadowland where these folks had been permanently exiled.
The idea of training one’s sense of smell is already commonplace in the anosmia community. At first glance, I wondered if there was a placebo effect at work—if smell training was simply something to do, for people who had run out of hope—but evidence suggests it can help. I started smell training a few months after my own smell loss, when I felt I had regained most of my sense of smell but not all of it, and used a set of five essential oils: the standard rose, lemon, clove, and eucalyptus, plus grapefruit. Smelling all five scents—once after waking and once before sleep—started to feel less like training and more like ritual, more like lighting a stick of incense in church, calling up the origins of perfume itself, which is believed to date back to ancient Mesopotamia as part of holy ceremonies: a way to sweeten the animal offerings burned for the gods. (The word perfume comes from the Latin per, “through,” and fumar, “to smoke.”) When I lifted each scent to my nostrils, I tried to focus on it wholly, to whittle my attention to its essence—which felt not only like a way of cultivating awareness for what it means to smell but also a way of cultivating gratitude for the world itself.
For nearly 20 years before my bout of smell loss, I’d worn the same perfume—Guerlain’s Champs-Élysées, a luscious mimosa scent suffused with melon, black currant, and almond that flirted with cloying without indulging it. Even though it has been declared one of Guerlain’s most infamous failures, I felt fiercely devoted to it—felt almost virtuous when I picked up bottles at discount perfume shops in Koreatown, as if I were a high-school PE captain offering a spot on my team to the girl who was usually picked last. But during my decades wearing Champs-Élysées, it gradually became an olfactory autopilot—the fragrance equivalent of listening to the same pop song on repeat or eating the same buttery mashed potatoes every night, a comfort food I barely tasted anymore because its flavor was so familiar.
After losing and regaining my sense of smell, I found myself wondering if I could approach fragrance with more pointed attention—with a deepened sense of risk and experiment. As perfumer Sophia Grojsman told Ackerman, “Perfumes do that, too—shock and fascinate us. They disturb us. Our lives are quiet. We like to be disturbed by delight.” During the months my own sense of smell was returning, I started experimenting with new fragrances and paying attention to what their layers conjured: Valentino’s strident, sulking Voce Viva—with notes of Calabrian bergamot, mandarin, and spicy ginger—and Dior’s enchanting new J’adore Infinissime, with its bouquet of ylang-ylang, Centifolia rose, and tuberose. The backstory behind J’adore Infinissime was yet another incarnation of the way a scent can hold a narrative: Tuberose growth had been declining in the Grasse region in France for more than a half-century, until local growers made an effort to bring it back, and Infinissime holds in its scent the fruits of that revival. Gucci’s Flora Gorgeous Gardenia, with top notes of red berries unfolding into warm ribbons of white gardenia and frangipani, and a faint ripple of brown sugar underneath, like caramel under flan, held a lush abundance, as if it were returning me to the first blooms outside my windows in March and April, when the virus and its quarantine kept us sequestered from the very season that was supposed to smell like rebirth. As the pandemic persisted into autumn, I found myself drawn to the glimpses of situation and story embedded in Maison Margiela’s REPLICA line, with their evocations of faraway times and places—dispatches from the world beyond the cloister of quarantine. Lazy Sunday Morning (Florence, 2003) evokes soft skin and bed linen, with notes of pear and rose and a base of white musk, and Music Festival (Woodstock, 1969) wafts traces of fresh bud, leather, and patchouli, while Beach Walk (Calvi, 1972) calls up an aristocratic suntan lotion—who knew such a thing was possible?—with top notes of pink pepper, a middle layer of coconut milk, and a cedar-and-musk base.
The nostalgic premise of the REPLICA line seems well suited to our pandemic, summoning collective memories that ache bittersweetly against the impossibilities of our quarantined present tense and its ongoing claustrophobia: the humid proximity of other bodies in a basement club or packed shoulder-to-shoulder across an open field under a swollen dusk sky; the jostle of a Paris flower market with its crowded stalls, or a Stockholm coffeehouse suffused with the sugary warmth of oven-fresh pastries and the murmuring voices of strangers on a blustery winter day. These scents acknowledge that the most powerful smells are not exotic luxuries but familiar features of our days—the ones lodged inside our daily routines, calls coming from inside the house. It’s an abundance we are constantly surrounded by and constantly ignoring. What an incredible thing, to lose it and then wake up to it again, newly attuned to the simplest pleasures: the rich aroma of coffee steeping in the French press, the faint residue of apple-scented dish detergent on my fingers, the smell of my daughter’s curls when she first crawls out of bed, a scent caught somewhere between soap and honeycomb—utterly ordinary and holy as incense in church, something offered to the gods.