By Shelby Stewart
Staff writer
(Editors note:Shelby Stewart is a staff writer for The Citizen who recovered from COVID. Here’s her story.)
For the last few weeks, I’ve started my morning by sitting on the floor of my home office with four little jars of essential oils in an attempt to regain some of my sense of smell.
Back in March, my husband and I tested positive for COVID-19. I was lucky that I only felt sick for a day, and had few symptoms. I thought once I tested negative, that would be the end of it.
So imagine my surprise when in early June, I started smelling cigarette smoke intermittently throughout the day. After the fourth or fifth time of me asking someone if they smell cigarettes (and getting a ‘no’ and a funny look), I figured something was wrong. I’ve always been sensitive to smells, but this was getting weird.
In my research, I found that some people who recovered from COVID-19 had experienced Phantosmia, or phantom smells, and Parosmia, which is distortion of smells. I read accounts of this, and possible treatments, and told myself that if it lasted another few days, I’d look into treatments.

But it went away. Or at least it did for a month.
Then I started not only smelling phantom cigarette smoke, but phantom bleach, and a phantom smell of rotting mushrooms. On top of that, I lost my ability to smell mint, which was a bigger problem for me than for most because my shampoo and conditioner, toothpaste and lip balm are all mint scented or tea tree oil formulas. Now, mint smells like bleach, and it’s not easy to put up with like the phantom smoke was.
So I went back and found the treatments I had researched previously, a smell treatment developed in 2009 by Thomas Hummel. Hummel is an ear, nose, and throat doctor at the University of Dresden, and he tested a standardized smell-training protocol in which he asked 40 participants to smell 4 essential oils twice a day. The scents (rose, lemon, eucalyptus, and clove) helped some of the volunteers regain some of their smell after 12 weeks.
I thought it was worth a shot. What did I have to lose?
I ordered a kit online, and have been trying to re-train my senses. In all my research, though, I had further questions about why this happens, so I decided to sit down with local doctor Rachel Young of McLaren Ortonville.
“The understanding is that COVID-19 damages the cells that support olfactory neurons,” said Young. “Olfactory neurons are responsible for our sense of smell.”
Young said she has had people ask about long-term symptoms including loss of taste and smell, fatigue, brain fog and shortness of breath. With issues like my own, she says that it is not just the olfactory nerve, but the olfactory sensory neurons.
“These neurons sense stimuli or odors in the environment,” she said. “That triggers a signal that travels through the olfactory nerve to the brain. The signals code for specific smells.”
While some people are starting to experience symptoms like mine, Young says it is unclear how long they will last or how long we will see them for. She also said that it doesn’t seem to matter how severe a case of COVID is when it comes to long term symptoms.
“I think we will be seeing long-term symptoms from COVID as long as the virus is still circulating within the population. It is unclear at this point how long the symptoms last but it seems to depend on the individual,” she said. “Interestingly enough, the severity of COVID symptoms doesn’t seem to correlate with the incidence of long-term symptoms. I’ve seen patients with relatively mild symptoms that seem to linger on, as well as patients with severe symptoms that seem to resolve within a few weeks.”
Your sense of smell is the sense most closely linked to memory, something I learned years ago from my candle-making aunt. So the purpose of the essential oils is to relink that scent to a memory in your brain. The instructions say to think of something involving that scent, such as a bouquet of roses, or the winter holidays when clove is a predominant scent. I struggle to think of a memory involving lemons, but I’ll keep trying if it means my shampoo won’t smell awful anymore.
I’ve even tried to expose myself to mint things more in hopes that more exposure will lead to my senses returning to normal. I have no idea if this will work, but I love the taste of mint so I’ll gladly have mint flavored things more often.
As a side note, while I was writing this article, I thought someone in our office lit a candle because I smelled a burning wick. Surprise: no one lit a candle.
For others who think they may be experiencing long-term COVID symptoms, Young suggests speaking to your doctor.
“If someone is experiencing what they believe to be long-term COVID symptoms, they should see their physician,” she said. “They may need further work to determine the cause and if the symptoms are indeed related to their previous infection.”
If anyone has had a similar issue, send us a letter. I’d be interested to know how many people are struggling with this as well. Send emails to [email protected]

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