I recently lost my sense of taste and smell from COVID, and it was a terrifying experience.
We tend to take our sense of taste and ability to smell for granted. Because it's so integrated with our day-to-day lives, it's hard to imagine a life without it.
So I didn't realize its importance until I lost them. The COVID-19 symptoms affected my ear, nose, and throat.
What made it worse for me was that I couldn’t do my work as a sommelier.
There were times I thought my taste and smell would never come back. And I wondered what I’d do with my tea company if that were to happen.
Fortunately, I did recover in the end!
COVID is one of the many conditions that affect the olfactory nerve, one of our support cells that enable our sense of smell. Once this nerve is damaged or affected, you will experience temporary or permanent olfactory loss.
So I want to share my journey and the smell training exercise I used for my recovery in case you are also struggling with the loss of taste and smell from COVID, OR you are interested in further developing your sense of smell.
Read on, OR use the links below to jump to a specific section:
- Sense of Taste vs. Smell
- My Journey of Recovery from Day 1
- How Long It Takes to Regain Your Sense of Smell and Taste from COVID
- Olfactory Exercise for Sensory Recovery and Nose Training
Sense of Taste vs. Smell
COVID patients often say, “I lost my sense of taste,” when they experience less flavor from food and drinks.
However, technically speaking, the loss of sense of smell, not taste, impacts your ability to enjoy the flavors.
Although we commonly distinguish taste as one sense and smell as another, they work together to create the perception of flavor.
- Taste: how our tongue and mouth interact with food and drink
- Aroma: how our nose senses smell
- Flavor: how our brain synthesizes aromas, taste, and texture into an overall experience.
For example, when we think of sweet flavors, we think of hot chocolate (a sweet taste plus a chocolate aroma) or other sweet desserts.
And we often use the words "sweet" and "chocolate" (or other aromas associated with sweetness) interchangeably.
So when you lose your sense of smell, you also lose your sense of taste. This loss of smell and taste is one of many symptoms of COVID-19 infection.
Without your sense of smell, your taste is limited to:
- pure sugar (sweet)
- pure salt (salty)
- citric acid (sour)
- crushed caffeine tablets (bitter)
- MSG (umami)
Can you imagine only experiencing food from these 5 "ingredients"?
It’d be (and it is) very dull! And that’s what happens when you lose your sense of smell.
If you are having a hard time distinguishing between taste and smell, try this exercise:
- Take a sip of your tea. Take a note of all the flavor profiles. Hold your nose while taking another sip. Write down the tasting notes.
- The difference in flavor notes between step 1 and step 2 should be the aromas of what you smell.
My Journey of Recovery from Day 1
Once I lost my sense of smell due to COVID, here’s what happened until I fully recovered my senses.
If you recently lost your sense of smell, hopefully, my day-to-day experience gives you a better insight into how your journey to recovery may unfold.
If you are lucky enough not to have experienced the long covid recovery process, here's the experience of losing your sense of smell.
Day 1: I assumed I couldn’t smell because of my stuffy nose from COVID. So I didn’t think much of the symptoms.
Day 2: Once my nose cleared up, I realized that I could not smell ANYTHING. My husband made me our usual grain bowl, and I was very underwhelmed by what I tasted. It essentially tasted like eating salt with caffeine tablets with some mouthfeel. It was shocking, but I thought maybe my sense of smell would come back the next day. I also lost my appetite as everything tasted bland.
Day 3: When my sense of smell did not return, I began to worry that I may end up with a long-term sensory problem. Identifying tasting notes is a big part of being a sommelier. I went into a rabbit hole of Googling, “how long does it take to regain your sense of smell from COVID.” When I learned that it might take 3 months to 1 year to recover fully, slight panic set in.
Day 4 (10% recovery): Good news! I unexpectedly smelled some barley rice I made, although it was very faint! I began to feel more optimistic about my recovery.
Day 5 (20% recovery): I had a chocolate chip doughnut muffin (it was more of a muffin than a doughnut), and I smelled some burnt sugar notes! I became overwhelmed with joy! Still, it felt like I was more or less eating plain sugar.
Day 8 (30% recovery): After a few days of status quo, I began to worry that perhaps my sense of smell would remain at 30% forever. To better evaluate where I stand, I decided to try one of my favorite teas, Yiwu Wild Tree Raw Pu-erh (2018). Unfortunately, it didn't taste the same as I remembered. I couldn't smell its lasting honey sweetness, the primary characteristic of this terroir. I felt slightly depressed about the slow recovery process.
Day 9 (50% recovery of the front of the nose; 0% recovery of the back of the nose): To my surprise, I began to taste more from my usual grain bowl. Then, it occurred to me that the main reason that my tea tasted even worse than my meals was that I could not “smell” anything through the back of my nose. The back of your nose is essential in determining the quality of teas as you evaluate the aftertaste and "huigan" (or return of the flavor). I began to panic again at the prospect of losing my career.
Day 17 (90% recovery): After a week of prolonged recovery, I finally felt like my sense of smell was back at 90%, both the front and back of the nose. I say 90% because I thought flavors used to be more potent in general.
Day 24 (95-100% recovery): After almost a month, I was at a place where I was content with my recovery. I still felt like perhaps my sense of smell wasn’t at 100%, but it was good enough to live my life and continue my work as a sommelier!
How Long It Takes to Regain Your Sense of Smell and Taste from COVID
Based on my experience, it took about 24 days for me to be pleased with the recovery of my senses.
According to a study in the Journal of Internal Medicine, the average time of olfactory dysfunction reported by patients was about 22 days, which is in line with my experience.
However, the same study also cites that nearly 25% of the COVID patient participants did not regain smell and taste within 2 months of infection though 95% of them regained their senses within 6 months.
The good news is that if you regain any hints of smell, it’s just a matter of time until it fully returns! So you have to be patient.
If you have zero sense of smell after 6 weeks, please consult a healthcare professional. And if you smoke, make sure to stop smoking as it can hinder recovery.
Finally, refer to the olfactory exercise below if you are looking to expedite your recovery process OR you would like to train your nose the way sommeliers do.
Olfactory Exercise for Sensory Recovery and Nose Training
To help expedite my recovery process, I used an olfactory exercise you can do at home to train your nose. I adapted it to make it similar to how sommeliers train their noses!
So even if you did not experience any loss of smell, this exercise is still relevant for you.
The high-level idea behind this exercise is that memory, emotion, and smell are tightly connected in the brain.
The more and deeper connections you can make, the better and faster the recall.
It's also the reason that immediately after enjoying some lavender-flavored ice cream, you can more easily identify a whiff of lavender scent that blows your way. (This happened to me on my weekend trip to Seattle!)
So here's the exercise.
Notice how it focuses on both the front and the back of your nose.
Step 1: Choose a food or beverage item that satisfies the following criteria:
- It has a very bold and singular flavor profile (i.e., orange, rosemary, lavender)
- You have a strong connection with (i.e., you can almost "taste" the flavor by thinking about it without actually tasting it)
Note: You can also choose flavors or essential oils with which you'd like to develop a stronger connection.
Step 2 (Front of the nose): Take gentle whiffs for 30 seconds while imagining what the smell looks and feels like. When was the last time you smelled this scent?
Step 3 (Back of the nose): Take a bite and try to taste the flavor you just smelled (or imagined smelling) while breathing out through your nose. Note the intensity of the flavor and any differences from the previous step.
If you are having a hard time detecting the aroma in the back of your nose, slowly blow out onto your palm and smell it to remind yourself of the smell you should be looking for.
Step 4: Once you have built a strong connection with the flavor you picked, you can perform the exercise using a different item.
Even if you did not experience any loss of your senses, doing this exercise whenever you eat something should help you enjoy your food and drinks even more.
Eventually, you will be able to pick up these flavor notes even if they are mixed with other flavors in more complex flavor profiles.
You can also support it with nasal sprays, but consult your doctor for medical advice.
Both sensory recovery and nose training take time as it depends on the nature of nerves.
So make a habit of repeating this exercise whenever you get a chance!If you want to get your sensory experience to the next level, click here to download my free guide on how to identify tasting notes like a sommelier.