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Hacks, quacks and facts

Social media cures for smell loss

When you’re wondering how to get your sense of smell back, the internet is an obvious place to look for help. Unfortunately it’s also a source of misinformation, so how can you tell what will help you and what is just misleading?

Two types of smell loss

To understand what is happening, and why misleading information can cause problems, it’s important to understand that Covid-related smell loss falls into two categories: short-term smell loss and persistent smell loss. 

Short-term smell loss:

Nine of out 10 people will recover quickly and completely in two to three weeks. This short-term smell loss happens because there is a blockage high in the upper airway that blocks access to the olfactory epithelium, a small patch of tissue responsible for smell. This tissue sits behind the bridge of the nose. You will not be aware of this blockage because it is above the zone where you might normally feel stuffiness. In fact, many people report dry and “open” nostrils. 

Persistent smell loss:

This occurs when the virus has damaged olfactory nerves in the epithelium. These nerves are designed to repair themselves but it’s a healing process and it can take some time. The recovery period varies and could be a number of months or anywhere up to two years.

So to sum up: 90% recover quickly, 10% will take a bit longer. 

It’s important to know that on day one of your smell problem, it is impossible to know which group you fall into. Only the passage of time, and absence of a speedy recovery, will tell you whether you have persistent smell loss. There is nothing you can do to prevent it.

Finding a quick fix

Smell loss is very distressing, especially when it first happens to you. It’s natural to go out there on social media looking for cures and quick fixes - the things that your doctor won’t tell you.

People who share their experience of treatments and cures online are in the 90% that recover quickly. They have short-term smell loss, and their sense of smell comes back as quickly as it was lost. 

For example, someone with short-term smell loss tries a popular hack like the burnt orange trick and recovers; they will go onto social media and tell the world that this is the cure. Maybe they tried other things too. Whatever thing they were doing on the day their smell came back will become the “cure” they associate with the restoration of their sense of smell. This is a natural human response. We want to join up the dots to help us make sense of things. And we want to share the news, because it’s normal to want to help others.

Unfortunately, this has led to a lot of misinformation, and some misinformation has been amplified many times, making it seem legitimate when it is anything but. While many of these hacks and ‘cures’ are not harmful, they can cause problems because they are misleading. 

Follow the science

There is of course no plausible explanation or scientific evidence to support the orange “trick”, or the chiropractor’s head flicking “quick fix” that has been widely shared. These two interventions are harmless, but won’t help. As always when you see interventions like this circulating on social media, ask yourself how the originator of the post might be profiting from the clicks. When posts begin with titles like “How to cure…” “Quick fix…” be alert to people seeking to profit from your problem. Clicks can mean serious income.

There are other remedies for smell loss circulating on social media that may assist recovery. Vitamin A drops, Alpha lipoic acid, and zinc have all been researched for this purpose. While there is some weak evidence to support these supplements, much more research is needed before they can be recommended by doctors. All of these are supplements which can be purchased over the counter, and if you use them, please remember to follow instructions and not overdose. 

There is one intervention for which there is scientific evidence – smell training. You can learn more about what smell training is, and a bit about how it works here. The British Rhinological Society and ENT UK recommend smell training for olfactory loss, but do not recommend any of the other things mentioned here because there is not enough clear scientific evidence yet to support them. 

Smell training is not a quick fix

Like stroke rehabilitation, smell training takes a long time. It does not depend on what you smell, but what your brain is doing with the exercise. You should expect to continue smell training for at least four months to benefit from it. 

Anyone who tells you smell training recovered their sense of smell after a couple of weeks - well, now you know what kind of smell loss they had. This is where misinformation can be bad: you may feel discouraged that smell training doesn’t work for you. Don’t let their ‘quick-fix’ experience put you off smell training; it’s the best thing you can do to support your recovery from persistent smell loss. 

 

Find out more about smell training.

December 22, 2021