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Doctors recommend 'smell training' for COVID-19 related loss of taste, smell

One of the longest lasting symptoms of the virus is a loss or distortion of taste or smell. Doctors are providing an at-home treatment option.

TAMPA, Fla. — There have been more than two million cases of COVID-19 in Florida since tracking of the pandemic began more than a year ago.

Many of the patients who've tested positive report a number of symptoms: fever, cough, shortness of breath, but the most telltale symptom has been the loss of the senses of taste and smell.

More than 85 percent of people who have tested positive for the virus report a loss or distortion of their ability to smell and taste. It also seems to be the longest-lasting symptom, with some patients suffering even a year after infection. 

Dr. Jose Ruiz, an otolaryngologist from AdventHealth Sebring, says one of his patients has had a distorted sense of taste and smell for more than a year.

"It starts to get into that psychological effect when a patient doesn't want to eat, they become depressed. It's really one of those senses that you don't realize how important it is until you lose it," he explained.

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He's treating several patients for loss or distorted taste and smell because of the coronavirus. Some patients report that they can smell and taste, but flavors of normal things they used to like are off-putting. Pizza can taste rotten or spoiled, oranges can taste like plastic. Part of his treatment plan includes steroids to treat any inflammation. Another portion of his treatment plan includes olfactory training, or smell training. Dr. Ruiz says there's no clear-cut treatment because COVID-19 is still so new, but he's having some patients find success in their treatments.

Olfactory training is simple. "I just tell patients to sit and sniff," Dr. Ruiz said. 

He instructs patients to pick strongly scented things around their homes (preferably good smells) like coffee beans, oranges or essential oils. Then they sniff for a couple of minutes at a time, a couple of times each day over the course of a few weeks.

The idea is that by smelling different things, you're stimulating your olfactory nerve.

"The olfactory nerve does have the capability of regenerating so you want to keep triggering the nerve so you get regeneration of the function," he explained.

As for a time frame as to how long it takes to become effective, that's still unclear. Some patients regain their smell and taste completely in a few weeks, others don't get it back for months and even more than a year.

Dr. Ruiz says you can try smell training at home and it won't hurt, but if you do have a loss or distortion of your ability to taste or smell and you haven't been to a doctor, he suggests getting COVID-19 tested first. 

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