Dr. Katie Loftus was treating coronavirus patients at Mount Sinai Hospital Health System until she got sick herself. It was a mild case of COVID-19, and after two weeks, she was back at work.
Two months later, a new problem emerged.
“I started noticing a very bad smell at a lot different places and different scents I would encounter,” said Loftus, an anesthesiologist. “It smells like something rotten, almost like rotten meat.”
Comforting scents like lavender, breakfast cereal and coffee suddenly were foul.
“Walking into a Starbucks is a totally disgusting thing to do right now,” she said.
“With this novel coronavirus, we are seeing a very high frequency or a high population of patients that have a change in the sense of smell or taste,” said Dr. Alfred M.C. Iloreta, Jr., an otolaryngology specialist and member of the Division of Rhinology and Skull Base Surgery at Mount Sinai.
Iloreta says he's treating more and more people who have recovered from COVID-19 wrestling with changes to their sense of smell and taste. He estimates that 50 percent to 70 percent of patients with mild-to-moderate cases of COVID-19 have some degree of impairment. Some have lost those senses completely.
“What we think is that the virus specifically attacks or attaches where we smell and that’s called the olfactory cleft. It’s where the nerve sits that senses these particles in the air that we perceive or we sense,” Iloreta explained.
One theory is that the virus inflames the nerve, causing it to swell, interfering with signals sent to the brain identifying everyday scents.
There’s no known treatment yet, but Iloreta wants to find answers. He’s running a clinical trial that tests whether fish oil could be a remedy. Previous studies conducted at Stanford show the supplement can improve the sense of smell after pituitary surgery.
Iloreta says that COVID-19 presents a unique window of opportunity to study the loss of sense of smell and find a treatment. In addition to COVID-19 patients, the findings could potentially help people who suffer from impaired smell and taste after other viruses, like the common cold or seasonal flu.
“It is something that is pretty wide spread throughout patients outside of COVID,” Iloreta said.
Dr. Loftus is one of Iloreta’s patients. After she started taking fish oil, her smell and taste improved. It's not yet clear whether the fish oil or the passage of time helped, but either way, Loftus is relieved.
“Certainly if it had stayed that bad for a long time, it would have been a real impact on my mental health.”