How a lack of taste or smell can impact mental health

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Odessa, TEXAS (Big 2/Fox 24) – Some people have dealt with anosmia, which is a diminished ability to smell or taste. It’s a tell-tale sign of COVID-19, and sometimes it’s the first and only symptom of the illness. In this week’s segment of “Centers Solutions: COVID Edition”, Melanie Saiz and Kristi Edwards explain how anosmia can impact you. Edwards says she had the virus last year and knows what it’s like.

“Whenever I first found out that I had COVID-19, I was mostly asymptomatic. But I realized that I had a candle that usually burned really strongly that I burned in my living room, and I noticed that I couldn’t smell it that very much, so just not as intensely. I only had that for a couple days.  Now in comparison to that, my husband had it for several weeks and he said he felt very off balance,” says Centers Executive Director Kristi Edwards.

Edwards says some people have dealt with “phantom odors” like smelling ammonia or sulfur when they have anosmia. “Phantom odors” or loss of smell and taste is not a comfortable feeling, but it’s also about the fear that comes with it. People who lose their sense of smell or taste likely wonder when they will get their senses back. Anosmia can take a toll on your mental health. 

“Olfactory research has been going on for decades, but hasn’t come to light like it has recently. So nobody really knows when their ‘normal’ will return. So that’s a little frightening for people. For the minority of patients who have not found their senses return,  there’s a quality-of-life issue. I mean, smell is linked to taste, which is a part of food, tasting your food, it’s a part of pleasure. The sudden absence  is like a light switch that’s gone off, so that has a profound effect on someone’s mood,” says Centers Marketing & Development Director Melanie Saiz.  
Saiz and Edwards say that anosmia impacts your mental health. They explain that studies have linked anosmia to social isolation and an inability to feel pleasure. Both say that memories and emotions are linked to smell, so those impacted may not be able to feel the nostalgia that others can. Smell is also important because it can alert us to danger like a gas leak or burning stove, but the fear of not being able to sense that can be overwhelming.  Edwards also says that smell can trigger or exacerbate eating disorders.

“Sometimes if you can’t taste or smell, you will eat because you know that you need to eat. But sometimes the taste, being able to taste is connected to you’re being able to feel full as well.  Then on the flip side of that, people are saying, ‘ If I can’t taste it and I can’t get any pleasure out of it, then why am I going to eat?’ And then they restrict their food and if there’s any connection to an eating disorder or an OCD tendency, that can very much fall into that category of ‘I’m going to restrict my intake,’ ” says Edwards.

 If you have anosmia and are feeling anxiety about it, Saiz and Edwards recommend you call your physician to see if they have suggestions for help or relief.  After that, you can contact a therapist who is trained to give you coping skills. For more details about anosmia or how to deal with it, you can listen to the Centers podcast.

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