Before the COVID-19 pandemic, ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist Dr Clair Vandersteen might have treated around 10 patients a year for anosmia, the inability to smell.
But fast-forward to today and Dr Vandersteen has seen demand for his services increase significantly. Now, the majority of his patients are those recovering from COVID-19, up to 15 a week, in fact, at the doctor’s clinic in the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire de Nice.
Loss of smell is a symptom in eight out of 10 COVID-19 cases and can the effects can sometimes linger for months after the patient has recovered from the disease.
“We have seen a very large increase in patients since this time a year ago,” Dr Vandersteen said.
The ENT specialist says studies show that 20% of people who lost their sense of smell still had not regained it and it’s younger individuals that appear to be worst affected.
“The patients we see suffering from a loss of smell are relatively young. It is predominantly a problem that affects people in their 30s and 40s.”
While for some people it might seem little more than an inconvenience, Dr Vandersteen warns the condition can make patients anxious and depressed.
“The loss of smell can lead to psychological problems – 30% of people who have lost their sense of smell due to Covid are suffering from some kind of psychological damage. We love eating, especially here in France, so when chocolate tastes like cigarettes, for example, it can lead to people feeling unhappy or anxious.
“If you can’t enjoy the smell of your newborn baby, or the smell of your home, it can be unsettling. It can also be dangerous – if you can’t smell gas or smoke, for example.”
Dr Vandersteen’s team has come up with a three-pronged approach to help.
First, patients see Dr Vandersteen, who determines their level of smell loss. Then, they are seen by Auriane Gros, a doctor of neuroscience and a speech pathologist, who helps re-educate the brain to recover the perception of smells.
The final step is therapy with child psychiatrist Louise-Emilie Dumas, who runs group workshops around odours.
“The team has had positive results,” Dr Vandersteen says.
*Image courtesy of Dr Clair Vandersteen