How to Regain Your Faltering Sense of Smell

A simple strategy may help bring it back

Woman smelling mint leaves Photo: Getty Images

Our sense of smell is a source of pleasure and protection, but plenty of factors can cause it to fade. Aging is a common cause of smell loss. And the sense can also be impaired by health conditions that include allergies and head trauma, as well as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases (loss of smell is an early sign). Viruses can also damage your sense of smell, temporarily or sometimes even permanently.

In fact, SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, is the first virus to be studied as a definitive cause of smell loss, says Jayant Pinto, MD, professor of surgery in the section of otolaryngology, head and neck surgery at the University of Chicago.

How to Reverse Your Loss

If your smelling ability is diminished—you can’t detect burnt toast, for example—Pinto recommends seeing your primary care doctor. 

Some problems that interfere with this sense, such as allergies or chronic sinusitis, can be treated with medications such as corticosteroids, while benign nasal polyps can be removed with outpatient surgery.

For other causes of smell loss, a treatment called olfactory training (OT)—which involves sniffing essential oils, or plant extracts, twice a day—may help. An analy­sis of 16 studies published in 2020 in the journal Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery found that people whose smell loss was thought to be associated with a virus and who tried OT were about three times more likely to see their symptoms improve than those who didn’t use it. Other research suggests that most who lose their sense of smell with COVID-19 regain it within six months without treatment, but for those who don’t, a group of international experts who treat smell problems recently recommended trying OT.

More on the senses

Olfactory training also may work for age-related smell issues, says Edward McCoul, MD, an otolaryngologist with Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans who led the study analysis. “It’s hard to think of a treatment that is lower risk and frankly lower cost,” he says. But the technique has been shown to be less helpful for smell loss due to head trauma and Parkinson’s disease.

A number of medical centers offer OT, but you can also try it at home: Set aside a few minutes each morning and evening and use at least four essential oils (eucalyptus, rose, lemon, and clove have often been studied; search “aromatherapy” to buy online) or try other strong scents, such as coffee or a favorite shampoo. “Smells are tied to memories and other parts of the central nervous system,” McCoul says. “There may be some benefit for recovery if you use [scents] that are important to you.” Hold the scent about an inch from your nose and take short, gentle sniffs. As you do, focus on memories related to the aroma, says Pamela Dalton, PhD, an olfactory scientist at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Repeat two to three times, and rest a few minutes between scents.

Be patient: You’ll need to train for weeks or months to see results, McCoul says. In the 2020 analysis, the regimens tested lasted from three to 14 months.

Lifestyle Steps That Help

Whether your smell loss is temporary or permanent, these tips can help you cope:

Pay attention to what you’re eating. Food may have less flavor because smell is a huge component of taste. Plan meals so that you don’t under- or overeat due to feeling unsatisfied. Note that you may find yourself reaching for sweet and salty foods, which are less healthy, because these flavors can be tasted without relying on smell, Dalton says.

Boost food flavors. Capsaicin, the spicy element of pepper, can help enhance food’s saltiness, Dalton says, without adding sodium. Lemon juice can, too. Cook with fresh herbs and strong flavors like mustard and ginger, or sprinkle food with MSG or nutritional yeast to add umami (a savory taste you can perceive without smell). Experiment with textures to enhance the pleasure you get from food.

Take safety precautions. Your nose is key to detecting potential dangers such as fires, so place smoke detectors in every room and check batteries regularly. If your home uses natural gas, consider purchasing a gas detector to alert you to leaks. Clearly date leftovers and take note of use-by dates on perishables.

Editor’s Note: A version of this article also appeared in the August 2021 issue of Consumer Reports On Health.

Catherine Roberts

As a science journalist, my goal is to empower consumers to make informed decisions about health products, practices, and treatments. I aim to investigate what works, what doesn't, and what may be causing actual harm when it comes to people's health. As a civilian, my passions include science fiction, running, Queens, and my cat. Follow me on Twitter: @catharob