Not to be sniffed at: Agony of post-COVID-19 loss of smell

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Dr. Clair Vandersteen, right, wafts a tube of odors under the nose of a patient, Gabriella Forgione, during tests in a hospital in Nice, southern France, Monday, Feb. 8, 2021, to help determine why she has been unable to smell or taste since she contracted COVID-19 in November 2020. A year into the coronavirus pandemic, doctors and researchers are still striving to better understand and treat the accompanying epidemic of COVID-19-related anosmia loss of smell draining much of the joy of life from an increasing number of sensorially frustrated longer-term sufferers like Forgione. (AP Photo/John Leicester)

NICE – The doctor slid a miniature camera into the patient’s right nostril, making her whole nose glow red with its bright miniature light.

“Tickles a bit, eh?” he asked as he rummaged around her nasal passages, the discomfort causing tears to well in her eyes and roll down her cheeks.

The patient, Gabriella Forgione, wasn't complaining. The 25-year-old pharmacy worker was happy to be prodded and poked at the hospital in Nice, in southern France, to advance her increasingly pressing quest to recover her sense of smell. Along with her sense of taste, it suddenly vanished when she fell ill with COVID-19 in November, and neither has returned.

Being deprived of the pleasures of food and the scents of things that she loves are proving tough on her body and mind. Shorn of odors both good and bad, Forgione is losing weight and self-confidence.

“Sometimes I ask myself, ’Do I stink?'" she confessed. “Normally, I wear perfume and like for things to smell nice. Not being able to smell bothers me greatly.”

A year into the coronavirus pandemic, doctors and researchers are still striving to better understand and treat the accompanying epidemic of COVID-19-related anosmia — loss of smell — draining much of the joy of life from an increasing number of sensorially frustrated longer-term sufferers like Forgione.

Even specialist doctors say there is much about the condition they still don't know and they are learning as they go along in their diagnoses and treatments. Impairment and alteration of smell have become so common with COVID-19 that some researchers suggest that simple odor tests could be used to track coronavirus infections in countries with few laboratories.

For most people, the olfactory problems are temporary, often improving on their own in weeks. But a small minority are complaining of persistent dysfunction long after other COVID-19 symptoms have disappeared. Some have reported continued total or partial loss of smell six months after infection. The longest, some doctors say, are now approaching a full year.