Long COVID patients use experimental shot for sense of smell issues

People are traveling from around the world to a Texas center that is testing a pain medication injection as a way to treat loss of smell from COVID.
Posted at 9:03 PM, Jan 26, 2023

The walls of an unassuming office are filled with thousands of people turning to its medical professionals for hope.

"We're a pain practice, so we treat chronic pain,” said David Gaskin, a certified registered nurse anesthetist with Republic Pain Specialists in Bryan, Texas.

For more than a year now, people have traveled here from far and wide to treat something other than pain: a long COVID symptom called parosmia, which alters a person's sense of smell.

"It may smell like something dead, something rotting. Rotting flesh is what people describe it," Gaskin said.

Gaskin read about a medical journal case study out of Alaska that showed two patients found relief after getting treated with a stellate ganglion block, where pain medication was injected into a set of nerves in the neck.

A colleague suffering from parosmia asked Gaskin to try it out on him.

"Per his recollection, he was 95% cured in five minutes," he said.

That colleague wrote about it on a Facebook support group page, and since then, Gaskin and his colleague, CRNA Joshua Dunlap, say they've treated more than 1,600 patients from across the country and around the world.

It is not covered by insurance, costs $500 per injection, and usually requires two injections.

"It's almost like hitting the reset button on the nervous system, kind of getting them back and in check," Dunlap said. "For a lot of folks, it's almost immediate."

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That's what brought Alison Shores in from Georgia. She's suffered from parosmia since contracting COVID in the summer of 2021.

"I got this terrible garlic smell, like everything tasted and smelled like garlic," Shores said. "Then it went from there to trash, to sewer, to a combination of both."

Unable to stomach much, she said she lost 25 pounds since then.

"It affects your life a lot, you know?" Shores said. "People are like, 'Eat a cheeseburger,' and I want to eat the cheeseburger, I really do. But you can't really understand and grasp what is happening unless you're going through it."

Dr. Andrea Hebert is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine. She said right now, it's unclear why this treatment might be working for some patients suffering from an altered sense of smell.

"My initial reaction was I thought that this sounds great," Dr. Hebert said. "It's understandable that people are looking for solutions for this problem. It is such a big impact on their quality of life, but I think we need to caution having some well-thought-out trials come out and see what the true effects of this treatment are."

Several university studies on it are currently underway, but for Alison Shores, waiting is not an option.

"I'm hoping to get relief and hope and just to get where I'm able to eat," Shores said.

Minutes after the two injections, several types of snacks were brought in for her to try, including several chips and chocolate.

"I just want all the snacks. Cheetos are so much better. I'm about to cry, but it is so much better," Shores said, looking over at Gaskin with tears in her eyes. "This is amazing. Oh my gosh, I have missed these. They are so good! Thank you so much."

For Shores, the tears were of relief after a long journey in search of it.

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The World Health Organization defines long COVID as symptoms that are present for 3 months after being infected and linger for at least two months.