Losing the ability to smell or taste are two of the symptoms associated with Covid-19. But while many regained their senses, for others it turned into a phenomenon called parosmia, leaving them trapped in a world of distorted smells.
For Kate McHenry, the simple tap water sets off a horrible smell. That, along with the horrible smell she gets from the shower gel, means taking a shower is something to endure.
“My Aussie shampoo was my favorite, but it’s now the most disgusting smell in the world,” she says.
After falling mildly ill in March with a suspected coronavirus, the 37-year-old man, from Widnes, Cheshire, couldn’t smell anything at all for four weeks before the senses slowly returned. But in mid-June things “started to taste really weird”, with the smells replaced by a “horrible, chemical” smell.
It changed Kate’s life – she lost weight, suffers from anxiety, and is deprived of the pleasures of eating, drinking, and socializing. The problem is so severe that even in places where food is cooked, it is overwhelmed by the apparent stench.
She is afraid of finding herself forever without a sense of smell.
“I love good meals, going out to a restaurant, having a drink with friends, but now it’s all gone. The meat tastes like gasoline, and the prosecco tastes like rotten apples. If my partner Craig has a curry it smells awful. comes out of his pores so I have trouble getting close to him.
“I am upset at night when I cook. Craig will say ‘what do you want to eat?’ and i feel really bad because i don’t want anything – i know everything is going to taste awful. The implications this has had on my life are huge and I’m so afraid of being stuck like this forever. ”
People with Covid-19 lose their sense of smell – known as anosmia – because the virus damages tissue and nerve endings in their noses. It is when these nerves grow back that parosmia can occur and the brain is unable to correctly identify the real smell of an odor.
The condition is normally linked to colds, sinus problems, and head injuries. People with the condition describe being able to smell burning, cigarette smoke, or rotting meat. In severe cases, the odor causes vomiting.
Although professionals hope parosmia is a sign of re-establishment of a restored odor, for some people it can take years.
For Pasquale Hester of Leeds, toothpaste is one of the worst culprits. The chemical taste made her vomit so much that she resorted to brushing her teeth with salt, which tastes normal to her. Like many people affected by Covid-19, it took weeks for her to improve her sense of smell after becoming ill with the suspected virus. But when she ate a curry for her birthday in June, she realized her scent was distorted.
“I had a poppadum but I spat it out right away because it tasted like paint. Some things are more bearable than others, ”said Pasquale, 34. “Coffee, onion and garlic are the worst. All I can manage to bring myself down every day are snow peas and cheese.
“Losing my scent was mentally a struggle, but it completely blew me away. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. “
Law student Brooke Jones started having symptoms in April and tested positive for Covid-19 a week later. She describes almost everything she smells like as “rotting meat mixed in with something off a farm.” The 20-year-old, from Bradford, has a list of “safe foods” she can pretty much tolerate – toaster waffles, cucumber and tomatoes. Anything else and she just put up with the inconvenience.
“I think now I can imagine the taste of things. So when I eat a Chinese [takeaway], although it is not particularly pleasant, I can convince myself that it is not too bad. ”
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Although the number of patients with Covid parosmia is not known, it is estimated that hundreds of thousands of people have suffered from anosmia.
Professor Claire Hopkins, president of the British Rhinological Society (BRS), said there is “a widely held mistaken belief” that odor blindness from the virus is short-lived.
“Yes, there is a good chance of recovery, but there are huge amounts of people who will lose their scent for a long time and the impact of that has been completely overlooked. ”
Smell plays an important role in memory, mood and emotions and those who suffer from dysfunction describe a feeling of isolation, Professor Hopkins said.
While the anosmia is disconcerting, the parosmia can be unbearable and it is only in very extreme circumstances that drugs in the form of an antiepileptic can be prescribed.
Professor Hopkins said patients were struggling to access help for smell problems and she was working with the NHS to change that.
“GPs are catching up and most doctors have probably never seen a patient with anosmia. and the physical impact, so that’s a huge step forward. ”
In the absence of a cure, those affected are receiving help and support from the charity AbScent, which has set up a Facebook group for those affected by the pandemic. With input from BRS, the charity produced an information guide for people with Covid-related odor loss, including details on what foods to eat and how to train for odors.
Its founder, Chrissi Kelly, said, “The most important thing for people is to see that others are in the same boat and to be able to openly share and have this great conversation. ”
The Facebook group also serves as a platform for people with anosmia and parosmia who are struggling to make their condition understood.
Brooke added, “When I try to explain it, some people think it’s funny and make a joke – that at least I can’t smell bad things. I know the effects of Covid could have been much worse, but it touches me. and it’s scary that no one seems to be able to tell you when or if it will get better. “