Covid-19 and a loss of smell: Discussion topic

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In a recent New York Times article(Katz, 2020), the author, Suzy Katz (2020), reflects on how the loss of the sense of smell courtesy of Covid-19 has affected her experience of the world. Most people who have a positive test for Covid-19 will lose their sense of smell or experience “smell distortions,” almost 90% of those infected will regain it within four weeks. That means that 10% don’t (Feuer, 2020). The author of the New York Times article is a member of that 10%--it’s been nine months since she tested positive for Covid-19, and her sense of smell is still AWOL (Katz, 2020). Interestingly, Covid-19 appears to not attack the olfactory neurons themselves, but the cells that support those neurons (Feuer, 2020). Although, that’s small consolation to those, like Katz, who miss their sense of smell.

I remember the first student I had who reported not having a sense of smell. Her loss was the result of a head injury. Anosmia—lacking a sense of smell—is a not uncommon effect of head injury. In fact, 13% to 25% of people with head injuries have anosmia. The greater the injury, the greater the likelihood of anosmia. Additionally, 25% to 33% of those with head injuries experience “abnormal odor sensations”—parosmia (Howell et al., 2018). People with parosmia “no longer wake up and can’t smell the coffee; because of parosmia, their coffee smells like burning rubber or sewage. Parosmia is most often an unpleasant smell, a distortion of an actual odor, making many foods smell and taste revolting.” (Feuer, 2020).

“Olfactory loss is often discounted as an annoyance, rather than a major health concern by both patients and many healthcare providers. Patients with olfactory impairment have diminished quality of life, decreased satisfaction with life, and increased risk for personal injury” (Howell et al., 2018). For my student, her loss of the sense of smell did not seem to greatly affect her quality of life or her satisfaction with life. My student reported not being particularly bothered by not being able to smell. The biggest change she noted was that she does more laundry than she used to since she can’t sniff her clothes to see if they can make it one more day.  The “increased risk for personal injury,” though, is an interesting point. Katz writes that “I accidentally left a burner on in my apartment and nearly started a fire” (Katz, 2020).

How many of us take our sense of smell for granted?

Suggested discussion topic

Writing prompt for initial post

  1. Take an hour and make a note of everything that you smell, e.g., baking cookies, a partner’s perfume/cologne, a pet’s flatulence. If you lack the sense of smell, ask a friend or family member to send you a list of odors that they detected over the course of an hour.

  2. Read this article: “Covid stole my sense of smell. The city’s not the same.” [Instructors: provide a library database link to this New York Times article. Your librarians can help you with that.] Quote something from the article that you found particularly interesting. In 150+ words of reflection, explain why. Be sure to use quotation marks for your quote. The quotation is not part of the 150+ word count.

  3. Of the odors on your list, which one would you miss the most? Why? If you asked a friend or family member to provide a list for you, which odor would you most like to smell? Why?

Writing prompt for responses

Please respond to the initial posts of two of your classmates. with at least two of the following types of comments.

  1. A compliment, e.g., "I like how... because...," I like that... because..."
  2. A comment, e.g., "I agree that... because...," "I disagree that... because..."
  3. A connection, e.g., "I have also read that...," "I have also thought that...," "That reminds me of..."
  4. A question, e.g., "I wonder why...," "I wonder how..." 



Feuer, S. (2020, September 21). How does Covid-19 affect smell? Smithsonian Magazine.

Howell, J., Costanzo, R. M., & Reiter, E. R. (2018). Head trauma and olfactory function. World Journal of Otorhinolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery, 4(1), 39–45.

Katz, S. (2020, December 15). Covid stole my sense of smell. The city’s not the same. New York Times.

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.