Researchers suggest smell training, not drugs, for some COVID-19 patients

A huge number of people who contracted and later recovered from COVID-19 experienced loss of smell, an issue that persisted months later in some patients. A class of drugs called corticosteroids aren't the solution to this problem, however, at least according to a new study from the University of East Anglia. Instead, the researchers recommend 'smell training.'

The loss of smell in some COVID-19 patients doesn't appear to be permanent and many people report it returning after a few weeks. However, some people experience long-term smell loss that decreases one's quality of life. Corticosteroids have been approached as a potential treatment for this problem because they reduce inflammation.

The researchers behind the new study suggest this class of drugs isn't the right treatment option and instead recommend that patients participate in smell training. This effort involves deliberately sniffing at least four different fragrances two times a day over the course of several months — the idea being that this habit will support recovery via neuroplasticity.

The reason for this suggestion is fairly simple: corticosteroids come with side effects, some fairly substantial including high blood pressure, mood changes, and fluid retention. Taking the time out of one's day to literally smell the flowers, however, isn't very difficult and is entirely free of possible side effects.

The recommendation is based on 'a systemic evidence-based review' of existing data, according to the university, with UEA Norwich Medical School Professor Carl Philpott explaining:

What we found that there is very little evidence that corticosteroids will help with smell loss. And because they have well-known potential adverse side effects, our advice is that they should not be prescribed as a treatment for post-viral smell loss [...] But we do know that smell training could be helpful [...] It has emerged as a cheap, simple and side-effect free treatment option for various causes of smell loss, including Covid-19.