In the past, it was rare for people to lose their sense of smell. Now, COVID-19 has made losing one’s sense of smell common. Can you enjoy wine without your sense of smell? And if you lose your sense of smell, what can you do about it?
These questions were addressed by Simon Gane, Rhinologist at London’s Royal National Throat Nose Ear Hospital at Wine Future 2021, one of the wine world’s premier conferences addressing the issues affecting the wine industry. A rhinologist is a physician who specializes in nasal and sinus disorders. Dr. Gane was one of the first physicians to identify the loss of smell as part of the COVID-19 syndrome.
“Before COVID, people didn’t pay attention and did not notice they’ve lost their sense of smell. They would delay dealing with smell loss and doctors would see them weeks or months later,” he said.
However, losing the sense of smell has taken on increased importance during the pandemic.
“It’s usually the first sign that you have the disease. Sometimes it’s the only symptom they get,” he said.
How does COVID-19 Affect the Sense of Smell?
According to Gane, odors enter the nostrils and float up the nose. They land on neurons with receptors, which are waiting to catch these very small molecules, like the ones that come off a glass of wine. The nerves recognize particular odors and transmit the signals to the brain. There are up to 400 receptors looking for a wide range of odors.
There are two types of loss of smell due to COVID-19, said Gane. The first is sudden onset, where people lose their sense of smell in a matter of hours. About 60 to 80 percent of people have this kind of smell loss due to COVID-19.
What’s more worrying is the second type of loss of smell: those whose sense of smell doesn’t return promptly or fully.
“Worldwide there have been 112 million cases [of COVID-19]. Six million will have a permanent loss of smell. That’s a huge number of patients,” Gane pointed out.
So Can You Enjoy Wine After Losing Your Sense of Smell?
Apparently not. Gane reported that one of the biggest complaints of his patients is they can’t enjoy wine anymore without their sense of smell. Considering that most wine tastings include smelling the wine, once or even multiple times, not having access to this sense can be a huge drawback to one’s wine tasting experience. The aroma of the wine can also greatly impact the overall taste; much of our taste depends on the sense of smell.
“It needs to be taken into account. Most of the pleasure of wine is the sensory experience. Smell is a significant part of that,” he said.
COVID-19 can also cause people to lose their sense of taste, which also affects one’s enjoyment of wine. Some individuals suffer a dulled sense of smell, a distorted sense of smell, where things now smell disgusting, or a distorted sense of taste.
“People can eat chiles without even blinking or vodka as if it were water. And it knocks out not only the taste receptors but also the pain receptors in the mouth,” he said.
Are There Ways to Regain the Sense of Smell?
There is some good news, said Gane. Those with short-term loss of smell frequently just have swelling in the nose, which can be treated with medication, such as steroids.
“But the earlier you can get [treatment] the better you can recover and avoid nerve damage,” he said.
There are also exercises to retrain one’s sense of smell, a form of physiotherapy for the nose. The training, similar to the smell training kits that sommeliers use to train their senses of smell, involves sessions of exposure to various scents, such as cloves and lemon.
This training is not limited to winemakers and others in the wine industry, who need their sense of smell for their livelihoods. Nor is it limited to adults. Several children's hospitals have opened “smell training” programs for children who have lost their smell due to COVID-19.
Gane noted that this focus on the importance of smell may change peoples’ attitudes.
“The increased awareness we have for taking smells more seriously…may drive a better appreciation of enjoying smells and of what you have at the moment,” he said.
In other words, don’t wait too long to open that bottle you’ve been saving.
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