- Two months after I got COVID-19, I started to smell a mix of garbage and onions everywhere I went.
- I suffer from parosmia, a partial distortion of smell, which is usually unpleasant.
- One expert said it might take up to three years to regain my ability to smell again.
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When I completely lost my sense of taste and smell in March 2020, it was the first thing I noticed.
It was a completely surreal experience, even more so because, at the time, loss of sense or smell – otherwise known as anosmia – wasn't officially recognized as a COVID-19 symptom yet.
So when my nose started to pick up some aromas three months later, I was elated. Only this time, it wasn't the same and hasn't been the same since.
For more than a year now, my nose has been plagued with what I like to call "COVID smell."
"COVID smell" is nothing like I've ever smelled before. But when I try to describe it to friends, I explain it as the stench of garbage, raw onions, and sweaty armpits.
The scientific term for this distortion of the ability to smell is parosmia, the "alteration of the sense of smell, that is usually unpleasant and caused by damage to olfactory neurons in the nerve center," according to Health.com.
Living with this condition is incredibly frustrating and has had a massive impact on my everyday life.
Take onions and garlic. The two ingredients, when fried in olive oil was once my favorite aromas to fill the kitchen. But now? Just COVID smell.
The comforting whiff of a steaming cup of coffee in the morning. Sounds nice? COVID smell.
A gigantic rose bush in my local park looked too beautiful not to have a whiff of the bouquet. COVID smell.
The scent of my partner when he hugs me. COVID smell.
Yes, COVID smell has adulterated my life, and even though I am grateful that I don't have more severe long COVID symptoms – more than 2 million adults in England are either still experiencing respiratory issues or are suffering from fatigue-related symptoms 12 weeks after contracting the virus – it hasn't been easy.
But I find solace in knowing that I am not alone.
Parosmia – not to be sniffed at
Many other sufferers have shared their own difficult experiences with parosmia caused by the virus.
One woman told the New York Times she was attending therapy after her parosmia made it unbearable to kiss her husband. Another said she couldn't cook food anymore without wanting to vomit, according to the BBC.
The precise number of parosmia sufferers is unknown but a study published in July 2020 found that 89% of people who suffer from smell loss due to COVID recover within four weeks, the remaining 11% report ongoing smell loss or parosmia. Another review from February 2021 found that of the 47% of COVID-19 patients who had smell and taste changes, about half reported developing parosmia.
"When people become repulsed by food, that can become a major problem," Carl Philpott, from the University of East Anglia's Norwich Medical School, told me. "Not only from a nutritional point of view where some people will definitely lose weight as a consequence of this … but it can also lead to a sense of depression and isolation."
Philpott established the Smell and Taste Clinic at the James Paget University Hospital in Great Yarmouth, England, a pioneering NHS unit that helps people who live with anosmia or parosmia. He is among a group of scientists who are studying the COVID-19 symptom.
There is cause for hope. A study published last month found that loss of smell due to COVID-19 will eventually return.
Philpott says that while 90% of people are getting their smell back within a couple of weeks after infection, it can take up to three years for others like me.
"For the people that are getting so long-lasting distortions, there is a theory that some of these people are getting a deeper invasion into the brain of the virus," Philpott told me. This theory is largely based on post mortem studies and previous research on the SARS virus.
"But the jury's still out on the exact mechanism that is causing this lengthy distortion," Philpott said.
Smell training can help with recovery
While there are currently no treatments for parosmia, one way to fast-track recovery is to start smell training, he said.
While not a cure, smell therapy is a form of physiotherapy for the nose. It requires you to work with different aromas to stimulate and amplify the nerves in your nose that are responsible for the smell.
Original studies show a clear connection between smell therapy and recovery included clover, eucalyptus, lemon, and rose.
"The natural history shows that it probably will get better with time," Philpott reassured me.
It has almost been a year since I've had a distorted sense of smell and while I'm not sure how long this will last, I look forward to that first morning where I can have my cup of coffee without holding my breath.