Smell: The most underrated sense of the human body

Unlike other senses, much of it happens in our subconscious mind.

In Summary

• Our sense of smell is underrated because, unlike other senses, much of it happens in our subconscious mind.

• There is no current treatment for the loss of the sense of smell and taste with respect to Covid 19 but incorporating different mechanisms might help reduce the side effects.Illustration of where the bulb is located
Image: Courtesy:Pinterest

For Sheila Wanjiku, a chef in Nairobi, life was easy until the pandemic struck.

Taking all the necessary precautions and observing all the Covid-19 protocols, it never crossed her mind at one point, that she would lose her sense of smell and taste for 3 months over the virus.

After the results came back positive, was that the beginning of the end?

“One day, last year, I went to work as usual and I was making ‘ndengu stew’ for my lunchtime customers. As I was checking if the salt is right, I could not taste anything so I kept adding the salt because I felt the taste was far,” Wanjiku told the Star.

“I wasn’t bothered much until later that day when my husband and a few friends went to grab coffee at Java. I got my favourite cappuccino, and noticed, I couldn’t smell, so I sipped hoping it would make a difference, but I couldn’t taste or smell, how?” she said.

“In shock and paranoia, I asked my husband if his coffee was okay, and he said it was okay. I started breaking down as it clicked- something was seriously wrong.”

Her husband had to take her home immediately as he could sense her troubled look.

“A lot crossed my mind, on the way, did I have Covid? If yes, how did that happen? Does this mean my career is over? Did I contract it to my husband? But I went back to sleep, hoping I will wake up okay the next day,” she said.A woman reacts in shock
Image: Courtesy:

Fast forward to the next day, Wanjiku woke up feeling tired and struggling to breathe.

She knew something was not okay and was rushed to the hospital for a Covid test.

“The test results came back positive, I kind of expected that, as I displayed some of the signs but what worried me the most was, if I could survive it or if my taste and smell would come back. I knew I had to be strong to fight it, for that sake,” she said.

After going into quarantine for a few days, she was hospitalized for two weeks as her health was a concern.

Doctors had to keep a close eye on her for her improvement.

As bars and restaurants were closed, Wanjiku lost her job but getting well was her priority.

“I thank God for a caring husband, he had to take care of me at the same time fend for us, I used to cry a lot asking God to take me away. A few weeks later I felt okay and tested negative. I went home but my smell and taste were not fully back,” she said.

The doctors told her, that she would regain it after a few weeks, but months went by and the condition was still the same.

“I couldn’t smell or taste like I used to, I struggled to eat anything and lost a lot of weight. It was three months since I was told they would delay, but enough was enough. I sought a second opinion, who advised me to change my diet and routine. Though its back, I always feel like something is amiss,” she said.

A recent study shows that women have a stronger sense of smell than their male counterparts.

The research which is also supported by Dr John Kamau, a Nairobi-based ENT says that our sense of smell is underrated because, unlike other senses, much of it happens in our subconscious mind.Covid-19 testing lab
Image: AFP

What really happened?

“The mechanisms behind the sense of smell after contracting Covid are not fully understood, but it is believed the virus, does infect cells that support the neurons in the nose,” Kamau told the Star.

“Taste and smell are really inseparable, if you lose one, you lose both. Smell contributes a lot when it comes to taste, so if the olfactory nerve involved in smelling is damaged, the recovery becomes slow,”

Kamau also said another possibility for the symptom could be damage to brain cells.

“The virus can travel to the olfactory bulb and lead to the death of some of the cells there, this then leads to the prolonged effect we see in the Covid 19 patients,” he said.

While not a life-threatening side effect, Kamau says it can deeply impact one’s quality of life including the slow recovery process.

“Wanjiku’s case is an awful complication and I understand it can be distressful, but I believe 70 to 89 per cent of people who are affected by this, recover. Some, however, may deal with it for a longer period of 2-3 years,” he said.

With over 60 per cent of people having a temporary loss of smell over colds and sinus infections, the American Academy of Neurology says there is no current treatment for the loss of the sense of smell and taste with respect to Covid 19 but incorporating different mechanisms might help reduce the side effects.

“Trying foods with a sharp or tart taste, such as oranges, lemon or lime or drinking boiled garlic water which helps with the inflammation and stuffy nose can be essential,” it says.Lemon, ginger and honey
Image: Courtesy:Pinterest

Recommending raw ginger tea at least in the morning and before bed, Kamau said that its strong aroma can enhance your taste and smell as well as hydrating.

“Drink water to keep your body hydrated and steam your face with hot water with or without herbs to open up your nasal congestion and blockage, this will give your nose an open gate to breathe,” he said.

The Health line says that steaming won’t cure the infection but may clear up your nasal and respiratory passages.

Diet and home remedies can help you recover quicker but Kamau says the regular practice of these healthy regimes whether sick or not can save you from infections especially during the pandemic.

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