It’s been nearly a year since Kelby Russell first started losing his sense of smell.
During the second week of March 2020, Russell, winemaker at Red Newt Cellars in New York’s Finger Lakes region, was in London showcasing his wines. Or at least, that was the plan. About 48 hours into his visit, the world began to go into lockdown amid fears of the rapidly spreading novel coronavirus pandemic. He took an emergency flight back to the United States.
Four days later, while isolating at home, he started to feel a bit run down.
“Given that London was a few weeks ahead of us in terms of the transition from winter to spring, I assumed my allergies had flared up some and used nasal spray,” says Russell. “Three hours later, I noticed the dish soap I was using suddenly seemed to lose its aroma. I could breathe perfectly fine through my nose, but aromas were suddenly gone.”
That evening, Russell ordered takeout from a local Thai restaurant. He requested extra-hot spiciness to “open up” his nose. But that didn’t work. “My nose remained clear, even though I couldn’t smell or taste anything,” he says.
Save for a mild fever, Russell “felt entirely fine.” As the days passed, he became more panicked about his lack of smell. This was early on in the pandemic, and loss of smell hadn’t yet been recognized as a potential symptom of Covid-19.
“I was terrified my career was over, and even more so the joy I find in food and wine,” says Russell. “It is what brought me a career. It is a great connection with my spouse, who is also a winemaker. It felt like an assault on everything I knew about myself, and there was no idea why.”
Data on the number of people who have experienced loss of smell due to Covid-19 is limited. In June 2020, a Mayo Clinic survey of 8,438 people with the virus found that 41% experienced some kind of smell loss. In another study, 100 people with Covid-19 were given a smell-identification test, and 18% had an inability to smell.
“I was terrified my career was over, and even more so the joy I find in food and wine… It felt like an assault on everything I knew about myself, and there was no idea why.”—Kelby Russell, Red Newt Cellars
Researchers still work to understand why loss of smell can occur in some coronavirus patients. One theory is that the virus can infect odor-sensing neurons.
“The olfactory nerve is what is affected with Covid, and it is an extra-cranial nerve,” says Sharon Stoll, a neurologist at Yale Medicine. She also lost her sense of smell during a bout with Covid-19. “The nerve isn’t in the brain, per se, but it’s in the cranium. It’s in the skull, but not the brain.”
Another theory is that the virus can cause inflammation, like leaky blood vessels, in the olfactory bulb (not to be confused with the olfactory nerve).
“The way the smell came back for me, and what I read in literature, is exactly how a cranial or a peripheral nerve problem would come back, which is very, very slow,” says Stoll. “Because nerve growth, it’s like a millimeter a month. It can take several months for people to get their smell back.”
While Russell says he regained his sense of smell within a few weeks, that wasn’t the case for Brent Noll, the general manager of Waterbar in San Diego. Last summer, after he allowed staff to take home any open bottles of wine, someone asked him to smell a Malbec to see if it was still singing.
“I couldn’t smell a single note, and that’s when it hit me,” says Noll. “I quietly went around to all the bottles and pretended to be checking them, but was in utter shock that I could not smell or taste a thing. I went home and opened a bottle of Syrah I’ve had countless times and still, nothing.” He had also partially lost his sense of taste.
At this point, he “started to freak out.” He drove to the corner store to purchase a variety of lower-end bottles. “Returned home, opened them all, still nothing,” says Noll. “Every morning for the next week, I tried to smell them, but could not.”
Even after he tested negative for Covid-19, the loss of smell persisted.
“The most glaring was talking to tables about a bottle of wine they were ordering,” says Noll. “My knowledge was still there, but to not be able to smell or taste really limited my ability and confidence with the guest. More frustrating was not being able to enjoy a fresh batch of cookies and milk with my daughter, which was a weekly tradition during lockdown.”
More than six months later, Noll continues to struggle.
“I still cannot pick out smells, which can be disappointing, but it’s coming back, just very, very slowly,” he says. “Will I ever be 100% again? Will I be more susceptible if I were to attain it again? Who knows. I will tell you this, it’s not the flu like everyone likes to say. It was scary for me.”