It’s not until you lose your sense of smell that you understand how much you’ve taken it for granted and just how many aspects of life it affects. We now know that losing the ability to smell is one of the symptoms associated with Covid. Scientists have started to investigate the impact loss of smell has on relationships.
This research has uncovered just how important smell is for feeling connected with partners and children. Those involved in the research describe how losing their sense of smell made them feel lonely even when surrounded by those they love, because the reassuring, familiar scents they took for granted had vanished.
Attraction and sexual stimulation involve all the senses: touch, hearing, sight, taste and smell. For some, losing the familiar smell of a partner prior to or during sex not only reduced desire but was a complete turn off, as previously attractive scents were replaced by off-putting odours.
The Covid-induced change to the senses can not only remove the experience of smell, but distort it too. What was once a trigger for sexual stimulation becomes repulsive and a libido crusher.
The relationship between taste and smell is close and often overlaps. We have evolved to be repulsed by food or drink that smells off. So, although this evolutionary alert serves a purpose and helps us avoid food poisoning, loss of smell can unfortunately also dampen arousal. Food and drink are often a prelude to sexual intimacy, if the ability to enjoy these pleasures is taken away or distorted, it’s easy to see what the knock on effect will be.
But taste isn’t just about food. Kissing obviously involves some tasting and when this is interrupted, it can move from being pleasurable to an impediment to sex. Some of the research participants talked of how they would avoid kissing a partner as the taste was repulsive. Apart from being an important part of intimacy, it is clearly a difficult conversation to have with a partner without offending them or jeopardising that part of the relationship.
It’s not just about others either – it’s also about not knowing how you smell. Lacking that crucial sense breeds insecurity. Likewise, if your sense of smell is distorted so that you think your partner smells like a sewer, it’s going to be difficult to maintain an intimate relationship.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, as some participants reported improvements in their relationships. Where they had once been repelled or at least found their partners odour off-putting, loss of smell actually liberated them. It removed inhibitions as they felt more confident about sex and their role during intimate moments.
Loss of smell will be a temporary effect of Covid for most people, but an estimated 10 per cent of all those who experience this loss will find it lasts for at least six months. The impact that loss of smell has on relationships, sexual or otherwise, is not merely a mild symptom but one that can have profound effects on those who experience it, in the short or long term.
This symptom and its effects are often overlooked or deemed trivial by health professionals. The new research suggests otherwise. This symptom of Covid has the capacity to threaten maternal, sexual and other bonds. It’s vital that health professionals overcome any shyness when it comes to asking patients about the consequences loss of smell has on their most intimate relationships. If they don’t, Covid may rob people of a pleasure that everyone has the right to enjoy.
Ian Hamilton is a senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York
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