Our sense of smell is a powerful thing. Scent can evoke a mood, prompt a memory, awaken an emotion and signal danger – we rely on our nose to alert us to rotten food, burning dinner, smoke and fire.
This is why hyposmia (partial loss of smell) and anosmia (complete loss of smell), common symptoms of Covid-19, are proving challenging for many, especially given that they can last long after patients have recovered.
Vicky Pugh began feeling faint one afternoon walking around the Springs Souk – her decreased lung capacity meant she wasn’t getting enough oxygen – and Pugh had to rely on a nebuliser after contracting Covid-19. After weeks of feeling ill, her symptoms began to ease up, yet seven months on, her sense of smell is still absent.
For people like Pugh, who have hyposmia or anosmia the condition doesn't come without its emotional toll.
“It affected me very badly,” says Silvia Walsh, a mum of two living in Dubai. “I felt like something had been taken away from me, from my very existence.”
Smells like home
Although she has adjusted to her new normal, Pugh, 31, opens up about the disheartening moments that can cut through the blunting acceptance of the loss. "After I lost my smell, I moved apartments. I had been saving a Molton Brown diffuser for when I finally had my own space."
It was a symbol of her independence she never had a chance to relish. “I had waited so long to have my own place and, after all the waiting, I was so upset I couldn’t smell it. I still put it on display, but I cannot enjoy it.”
The significance of the London brand takes on deeper meaning when the recruitment consultant says: “My uncle, who always bought us Molton Brown as presents, died this year from Covid. It's kind of a joke in our family how much he loved it. So, I purposefully bought that brand, thinking: ‘Uncle T would love this!’”
It’s no secret that aromas and memory go hand in hand, with many studies showing that scent intertwined with emotion cements long-lasting memories in the brain, while a 2018 University of Toronto study uncovered that the area of the brain that comprehends time and space is also integral for registering scents.
For Pugh, it’s all those memories wrapped up in the aromas of home, loved ones and childhood that hit her hardest when she contemplates lifelong anosmia.
“There are little things you can't comprehend not being able to take in. When I go home to the UK, the smell of my house – my mum, my dad – are so comforting. I love that sensation of walking through the door and thinking it smells like home.”
She also worries about the future. Speaking to a pregnant friend recently about that special newborn baby smell, Pugh was hit with a gutting feeling: “What if I can never experience that with my own child?”
Food for thought
Holly Severs, who contracted the virus in March 2020, relates. "Sometimes it just washes over me; what if it never comes back? I'd never smell my husband's aftershave – a scent of comfort to me – ever again."
She also laments the loss of enjoyment surrounding food. “I love to eat. It’s my whole social life, really.”
A year on and the marketing manager still has almost no sense of smell or taste. “Now when I go out to eat, I feel like I’m not entitled to an opinion. I can’t enjoy food and drinks the same way, so I just let other people decide.”
When Severs, 28, contracted Covid-19 – just as the UAE began its National Disinfection Programme – anosmia wasn't even a confirmed symptom. "It was my first day away from the office and, over lunch, I suddenly realised that I couldn't actually smell or taste anything. It was horrible."
Since then, not much has changed for Severs. “For the first few days, I didn’t really want to eat at all. I just couldn’t enjoy it.”
While she has come to terms with the condition, there are still waves of sadness over moments of missing out. She feels a sense of loss for the aromatic cuisine that reminds her of a special holiday, the mouth-watering sensation when she walks into her favourite restaurant, and the pastime of cooking with her husband.
“Obviously I am thankful that I have my health and that I didn’t suffer. But it feels like you’re living life, but not experiencing it completely. Like I’m missing a final layer; everything is two-dimensional.”
Walsh, who also loves to cook with her children, says: "It affects your everyday life. We live to feel, to taste, to see. I almost feel, at some points, as though I can't see."
Beauty is scent deep
While Pugh misses the smell of laundry-fresh sheets at the end of the day and Walsh misses the scents of shampoo and shower gel, for Jo Hanby such products are not only a hobby, but something she relies upon for work.
“Reviewing products of which the scent is an integral part, is what I do for a living,” the beauty writer, who tested positive two months ago, says.
“I was just getting ready to review new fragrances on my blog when my smell disappeared.” As she’s been working ahead to prepare her weekly content, Hanby’s work isn’t in danger at the moment, although some projects have been put on hold. But then what?
"It's the not knowing that makes it so difficult," she says. With smell being so intertwined with cosmetics, skincare and toiletries, she worries about navigating her business without her nasal power, should it never fully recover.
She also expounds on the sense of loss in her personal life. “It’s that familiar sun lotion smell that mentally reminds you it's time to switch off. Or the coconut and vanilla scents of summer fragrances that instantly lift your mood. I feel like a chunk of my life has been taken away.”
Paradoxically, it may be essential oils that are best for scent training. As Soniyaa Kiran Punjabi, founder of Illuminations Wellbeing Centre, says: "Smelling eucalyptus, lemon, rosemary and cloves while thinking about their source of origin – the plant or spice they come from – may help recover the sense of scent.
“Also try experimenting with essential oils and associating them with emotions. For instance, see if clove or peppermint oil helps you feel refreshed while lavender gives you a sense of calm and warmth.”
Finally, Punjabi adds: “Surround yourself with people who are reassuring and can help ease your anxiety. Comforting hugs and support can help lessen that alienating feeling that occurs when you lose your sense of taste and smell.”
Whether it has been weeks, months or a year, the four women still have hope that their sense of smell will return, even if that’s currently tied in with resigned acceptance and momentary flashes of panic.