COVID can ravage our sense of smell. It’s also sparking research on the sense we often take for granted

Credit: James Melaugh
Credit: James Melaugh

Smell is a startling superpower. You can walk through someone’s front door and instantly know that she recently made popcorn. Drive down the street and somehow sense that the neighbors are barbecuing. Intuit, just as a side effect of breathing a bit of air, that this sweater has been worn but that one hasn’t, that it’s going to start raining soon, that the grass was trimmed a few hours back. If you weren’t used to it, it would seem like witchcraft.

But of course you are used to it. You may even take it for granted.

Covid, [researcher Noam Sobel] hypothesized, could kick off a sort of global reckoning, forcing our conscious minds to recognize what our brains have known all along. “People are unaware smell is important until they lose it,” he said. “And then they’re terrified.”

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[Researcher Claire] Hopkins… expects more attention to the study of smell training and other as-yet-unknown treatments for people who have lost their sense of smell. It’s a problem that she thinks will be taken much more seriously in a post-Covid world in which many people, possibly millions of them, never fully recover their olfaction.

If smell was ignored before, off in the hinterlands, you could say that Covid put it on the map. 

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Infographic: Deaths from COVID-19 are far higher than reported estimates

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