Sniffing essential oils can help COVID patients regain their sense of smell

RICHMOND, Va. — A new study reveals those who sniff essential oils are more likely to get their sense of smell and taste back after contracting COVID-19, especially if they’re under 40 years-old. According to researchers, the common COVID symptom usually lasts up to six months for four out of every five patients.

The study also shows that younger coronavirus patients are more likely to recover these senses than older people. In an ongoing COVID smell and taste loss survey, collecting data from 798 survivors, researchers from the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) found that participants younger than 40 recovered their senses at a higher rate than older adults.

“With our cohort, we did see about an 80% recovery rate in a six-month period or longer. However, 20% is still a lot of people, given the millions that have been afflicted with COVID-19,” says Professor Evan Reiter, the medical director of the Smell and Taste Disorders Center at VCU Health and one of the co-investigators of the study, in a university release.

Pre-existing conditions can make things worse

The professor, who works in the Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery at the VCU School of Medicine, adds that understanding the different types of symptoms and whether the patients suffer from any pre-existing medical conditions can provide critical insights into their recovery prognosis. Those with a history of head injuries were less likely to recover their sense of smell. Additionally, those who experienced shortness of breath while combating the virus were even less likely to recover their senses quickly.

However, those dealing with nasal congestion were more likely to regain their sense of smell.

“Increased likelihood of recovering smell in subjects with nasal congestion stands to reason simply because you can lose your sense of smell because you’re badly congested and odors can’t get into your nose. Certainly, a subset of those people who are congested might have just lost their sense of smell because they were badly congested, rather than because of nerve damage due to the virus, as in other cases,” Prof. Reiter explains.

According to the World Health Organization, there have been more than 230 million cases of COVID-19 worldwide. If the survey reflects populations worldwide, more than 20 million people could suffer from a lingering loss of smell or taste after their COVID diagnosis.

Since April 2020, when reports of patients losing their senses of taste and smell started becoming common, researchers at VCU have been working hard to determine how long the symptoms would last in order to identify treatments for those who have lost the use of their senses.

Losing the sense of smell lowers quality of life

To date, nearly 3,000 people across the U.S. have participated in the survey, which works by tracking symptoms over time. Results have proved that sensory loss can be devastating for those who experience it. In a previous survey published in April 2021, 43 percent of participants reported that they felt depressed and 56 percent had decreased enjoyment in life while experiencing a loss of smell or taste.

Unsurprisingly, those who had lost their sense of smell or taste found it difficult to enjoy food, with 87 percent of participants indicating that cooking and eating had become a quality-of-life concern. The inability to smell smoke ranked as the most common safety risk, with nearly half of all patients reporting this problem.

“An inability to smell smoke was the most common safety risk, reported by 45% of those surveyed. Loss of appetite [present in 55% of sufferers] and unintentional weight loss [in 37%] continue to pose challenges for patients. The more we learn from those who’ve been affected, the better we can advise their health care providers and even individuals themselves on how to manage those symptoms. Through this study, we continue to gain a clearer picture of the risks COVID-19 poses to quality of life, safety, and long-term health and well-being while seeking answers on treatment,” says Dr. Daniel Coelho, the study’s lead author.

How can essential oils help?

According to scientists, smell training using potent essential oils may help recover the lost senses.

“I continue to recommend that to my patients. It’s low cost and low risk,” Prof. Reiter says.

The Clinical Olfactory Working Group, made up of an international group of physicians with a strong research interest in the sense of smell, recommended essential oils as a treatment option earlier this year. The group found that when a person loses their sense of smell (olfactory dysfunction), smelling essential oils could help foster the recovery of the damaged nerves.

“I’d also say potentially it may get people a little bit more tuned into whatever level of function they have left so it might make them more sensitive and better able to use the remaining sensors and neurons that are working,” Reiter adds.

For those who may be concerned about losing their senses, Prof. Reiter confirmed that the best possible prevention method would be to start sniffing essential oils.

“What the CDC and WHO have been saying — get vaccinated, wear a mask, hand hygiene — all of the seemingly simple things that are readily available at least here in the United States, fortunately, are important. To prevent these long-term consequences, you really need to minimize your chances of getting the disease in the first place because, once it hits, we just right now don’t really have a way to affect its course or affect its severity. Prevention is worth a thousand pounds of cure, in this case, because the cure isn’t there,” the professor concludes.

Can an implant restore your ability to smell?

However, there is even more hope, as Dr. Coelho, along with his colleague from the study, Dr. Richard Costanzo, a Professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics at VCU, has been developing an implant device to restore people’s sense of smell. The pair are optimistic that when it’s operational, it could be a source of hope for those living with a lasting loss of smell.

The findings appear in the American Journal of Otolaryngology.

South West News Service writer Georgia Lambert contributed to this report.