There’s something about a global pandemic and lengthy home lockdown that seems to add to the need for an after-work cocktail. In April, I considered a bottle of Cazadores blanco to be a staple in the pantry. Cracking ice in a stone glass with a dash of tequila, soda water, and a splash or two of lime was the occasional after work break I needed to refresh on the New York Times website. But for a couple of weeks the drink tasted like nothing. A cold cluster of bubbles that relaxed in its effervescence but was completely tasteless. The smell was empty too. I came down with COVID-19 in early March. I was fortunate to have a mild case that put me out of service for a few weeks but didn’t require hospitalization. The strangest symptom for me was the complete loss of smell Anosmia (and later, Parosmia). At that time, the loss of smell was newly linked to COVID; Now it is a more reliable predictor of infection than a PCR test. It happened very suddenly.
One morning I could smell it; that evening I couldn’t. I sat in bed drinking ginger and lemon tea, and repeatedly found refreshments on the news. A story about anosmia in European novel coronavirus cases surfaced and suddenly I realized that the tea I was drinking was nothing more than odorless, tasteless, warm water. My nose was clear, but my brain didn’t register anything. I leaned over to my friend, who had adopted his new work-from-home setup and had become more careless while showering. Nothing.
My inability to smell persisted long after I recovered from the other symptoms of the virus. The air in my house had no soothing, recognizable odors. No scents of morning coffee, fresh laundry or anything. It made cooking difficult (how spicy could it really be?), But cleaning my cat’s litter box was a breeze. I immediately became aware of something that had never crossed my mind: my ability to smell my surroundings was far from guaranteed. At first I worried every day that my sense of smell might be gone forever. I felt strangely alone without it – separated from a perception of my surroundings that I had always taken for granted. Fortunately, in late April I started again to taste the spiciness of lime in my tequila sodas, followed by the subtle presence of agave.
Little by little it slowly came back. At the beginning of May I could smell most of the things around me, though not as intensely as before. The food was fun again. I wasn’t permanently changed, but my anosmia had improved significantly. But then, on the third week of May, I took a sip of a freshly made drink and forcibly spat it onto the counter before I could make it to the sink. Tequila. Mineral water. Lime. But what I tried was a forgotten pile of vegetables that had been in the refrigerator for far too long – as if rotten zucchini had gotten into the drink. A putrid, ripe smell from the glass hit my nose and I choked and tossed the tequila in the sink.
All of a sudden, many previously normal smells – especially smells I loved – were rancid. A geranium-scented hand soap in the kitchen smelled of rotten pumpkin. Showering was an exercise in sensory futility between scented shampoos and face washes. I had to hold my breath to keep from choking as I walked through the grocery store’s goods section. Most of the fruits – from strawberries to pineapples, oranges to bananas – were completely inedible because they tasted as horrible as they smelled. I had to stop eating cucumbers, tortilla chips, eggs, and olives – among other things. One of the worst blows: When pizza tasted so awful, I had to hold my breath to get a single bite.
That sounds ridiculous, I know. The idea that a slice of pepperoni pizza might taste lazy when it definitely isn’t sounds crazy. It sounds made up. And it sounds like something that shouldn’t be a big deal because it isn’t life threatening. I was otherwise fine; Everything around me just made me gag. It wasn’t until I discovered AbScent, a UK-based non-profit organization dedicated to promoting olfactory awareness and helping those affected, that I even found out what was happening to me. Experts call the odor distortion as Parosmia. Chrissi Kelly, who grew up in Maine but has lived in England for three decades, founded AbScent after her own experience with anosmia, which began in 2012. “It’s very, very difficult for people to understand how terrible it is to lose your sense of smell,” she told me. “It’s a very isolating experience. [Friends and family] Think to yourself, “Well, I can stop up my nose and see what it is like, and I just don’t get it.” What’s the big deal? “And the fact is, people who lose limbs, people who lose their eyesight, people who lose their hearing, regain their wellbeing in about two years. People who lose their sense of smell tend to deteriorate over time. “
How COVID-19 can affect your sense of smell
There are two ways that viral infections can cause loss of smell. The first is by mucus blockage – i.e. A stuffy nose that prevents odors from reaching the receptors in the upper part of the nasal passage. The second, which is generally less common, is when the olfactory neuroepithelium – the tissue that lines the nose and contains the nerves that convey smell to the brain – is damaged by the virus. “When the nerves are damaged, it can lead to a deeper loss of the sense of smell,” explains Dr. Evan R. Reiter, professor of ear, nose and throat medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University. Of course, while research on odor loss and COVID-19 continues to evolve, studies have found that odor loss affects between 50 and 80 percent of people who contract the virus. That is not an insignificant amount. A recent study in Europe reiterated the specificity of the loss of smell and taste caused by SARS-CoV-2 and found that while many people appear to recover quickly, there is reason to believe that problems with olfactory function for some stay there for a long time Otherwise, I recovered from the virus.
What life with Anosmia and Parosmia really is like
Odor and taste disorders, while far from a medical niche, are outside of general jurisdiction, partly due to a lack of familiarity and partly because they do not seem as severe as problems with the other senses. This can make it confusing for those experiencing it to judge how to react or when to see a doctor. However, a lack of odor brings with it a number of real life-affecting problems. Some scents alert us to potential dangers: smoke from a fire, sulfur from a gas leak, even the smell of something burning on the stove. In addition, fragrance offers an opportunity to connect with our fellow human beings. It offers comfort, familiarity, and often nostalgia; It helps us understand and interact with our environment in ways that we really never even consider until it disappears.
If anosmia is already an unfamiliar condition, parosmia is even more so. In parosmia, the distortion usually occurs with known smells. In general, pleasant smells are replaced by aggressively bad smells such as rotten vegetables or cigarette smoke. Parosmia renders food inedible and makes simple tasks like washing dishes very difficult. How does it work? “In general, there are thousands of different receptors, all of which are encoded by different genes for olfactory neurons,” explains Dr. Equestrian. “Most smells are relatively complex. They stimulate a number of different types of sensors. Your brain gets input from all of these different receptors and then it puts everything together to see if this is a rose, this is my husband, this is dog poop. In parosmia, not all neurons and sensors may be equally affected when damage from a source occurs. So instead of getting the signals from all of these different receptors that the brain is used to, it may only get signals of 25 or 50 percent – and when it adds up, it changes the way you smell. “
That means I’m scared of brushing my teeth because the toothpaste tastes like it’s spoiled. A splash of lime in a cocktail – used to be a great way to relax after work – is reason enough to pour my drink down the drain. For me, five months after COVID-19, parosmia affects every aspect of my daily life in every stinking way.
How COVID-19 could help experts raise awareness of olfactory disorders
The nature of COVID-19 provides a unique opportunity to learn more about odor disorders that may help people in the future. At the beginning of April, Dr. Reiter, who is also the medical director of the VCU Clinic for Smell and Taste, conducted a study with his team to learn more about the loss of these senses. “Most of the time, when people experience changes in their sense of smell due to a virus, they will come months or even years after being infected with the virus simply because it hasn’t gotten better and they are curious about it.” You can also explain that there are likely to be many people who will not see a doctor or get tested. “This has made research into olfactory disorders difficult, and in this way, COVID-19 offers an opportunity.” Here we have a publicly known pandemic and the lay community is very much aware that loss of smell can be a characteristic symptom . That’s why we have all these people going through it together. “We took the opportunity to study natural history because it really wasn’t possible [previously] with the way patients present so sporadically and so retrospectively. “
That is hopeful. In the meantime, the ranks of AbScent members continue to swell. In March, Kelly started a COVID-specific Parosmia support group on Facebook. There are currently more than 5,000 members who all describe similar experiences: coffee tastes terrible; Gin seems like the only alcohol that isn’t miserable. rotten, smoky, and chemical smells and tastes abound. Everyone feels alienated because their experience is so incoherent and sounds so ridiculous to their friends and family. Everyone finds solace in the experiences of other group members. Not one person has reported that their parosmia has ended and their sense of smell has returned to normal. But it’s still early. The longest periods of anosmia and parosmia go back to March; Odor disorders can resolve – but it often takes months or years. And with every contribution in the group and every piece of information that AbScent collects and shares with researchers (with permission, of course), the future of helping people with olfactory disorders is getting better. In a group that thrives on shared experiences, this definitely makes sense.
The best hope at the moment, as COVID-related anosmics and parosmics are patiently waiting for further scientific knowledge, is so-called odor training, which is essentially a physical therapy of the nerve tracts between the brain and nose. “The olfactory neurons are unique in the nervous system in that they have the ability to regenerate,” says Dr. Equestrian. “In some cases, the neurons can regenerate, the wiring gets crossed, and people get distorted.” Odor training is the repeated training of these neural pathways to help them recover properly, whether someone has no odor or one who appears to be misfiring. It is the only research-supported technique that shows symptomatic improvement in odor disorders.
And it’s a process. “We need to look at this olfactory nerve as an injury rather than a disease that can be healed,” says Kelly. “If you got in a car accident and looked at yourself in the mirror and saw that you were covered in scars, you wouldn’t say when my scars will go away.”
There are success stories within the olfactory community. Chrissi herself is one. And their experiences resonate in the ranks of AbScent members who suffer from anosmia and parosmia. I smell train every day. I take out a collection of small jars that contain various essential oils in different fragrance categories: orange and lemon for fruit, rose for flowers, eucalyptus for resin, and clove. I smell them individually for about 10 seconds at a time. I focus on how they smell, how they should smell, and I envision that in the future I can eat whatever I want without fear of an unexpected, foul taste. A few days ago when I brushed my teeth before going to bed, the toothpaste tasted perfectly normal. It’s been five months since I originally lost my sense of smell, and every little win makes me more hopeful.
Subscribe to YouTube for access to exclusive gear videos, celebrity interviews, and more!