How to recover from long Covid symptoms

A Swedish study of more than 300 people confirms that anosmia is the most persistent problem that dogs people who have had even the mildest Covid symptoms. For a third of them, it can take at least six months for the problem to resolve. 

It’s not simply a loss of smell, however, but often a sensory derangement that can make food and drink taste repellently like rotten meat or chemicals. Fifth Sense, a charity for people affected by smell and taste disorders, estimates that 25,000 UK adults who have had Covid are affected.

Scientists are still debating the precise causes. Research from a collaboration of American universities, published in February in the journal Cell, suggests the coronavirus attacks cells in the nose that support smell-sensing neurons, effectively short-circuiting them.

Dr David Strain, a senior clinical lecturer at the University of Exeter who specialises in viral infections, explains that it is not certain yet how the brain shrinkage may be involved. “This atrophy might itself cause the loss of smell. Alternatively, loss of smell signals from the nose might make smell-processing areas of the brain redundant, so they are shrinking as a consequence.”

The hope, Dr Strain says, is that we can retrain our brains’ smell centres to work properly again. Indeed Fifth Sense, along with experts at the University of East Anglia, has created an online guide for a “smell training technique” that may help anyone who has experienced a loss or change in their sense of smell.

The training normally involves sniffing at least four distinctive smells, such as oranges, coffee or garlic, twice a day for several months in order to retrain the brain to recognise different smells.

Carl Philpott, professor of rhinology and olfactology at the University of East Anglia says: “Smell training is cheap, simple and side-effect free. It aims to help recovery based on neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to reorganise itself to compensate for a change or injury.”

In a similar vein, Hungarian olfactory experts at Semmelweis University in Budapest are using “Sniffin’ Sticks” infused with a variety of aromas to diagnose the problem. The then treat patients with an olfactory training method that involves inhaling four basic smells from essential oils – eucalyptus, cloves, lemons and lavender – once or twice a day for between four and six months.

Brain fog

Problems with “brain fog” affect a quarter of people recovering from Covid, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Troubles with sustaining attention, remembering things and planning ahead can persist for up to nine months after mild symptoms, according to a January study of 135 people by neuroscientists at Oxford University.

Such problems may often go unnoticed by the people themselves, the research found. But these insidious problems may lead to serious trouble, warns Dr Strain: “A recent study of 162,000 Danes who’d had only mild Covid symptoms found that their rates of cognitive impairment, which can be a precursor to dementia, were two-and-a-half times higher than people who hadn’t had Covid.”

Dr Strain hopes that post-Covid we can train our brains out of brain fog, not least by doing cognitively stimulating activities – from doing word games to learning a new language. Research also shows that having regular social interactions is important, so it’s high time to revive all your old networks post-lockdown.

However, it is important not to overdo things, Dr Strain adds: “We see in Covid that mental strain can cause exhaustion and physical malaise, perhaps by triggering inflammation in the brain and then subsequently in the body. By all means, do try brain exercises, but be aware that this may trigger physical symptoms. Pushing yourself is not a virtue here.”







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