Blog Post

Weekly line: I can taste again. But everything tastes like gasoline and garbage.

By Heather Bell

July 30, 2021

    When I was diagnosed with Covid-19 in December 2020, I counted myself fortunate for many reasons—but especially that my post-Covid symptoms did not progress beyond the loss of my senses of taste and smell.

    In April, I shared how I was coping with the condition, which is medically known as anosmia. Since then, I've discovered some surprising consequences of my condition, including for safety: Was it safe to take my daughter for a hike on Fourth of July weekend when I wouldn't be able to smell smoke? (I live in Las Vegas, where wildfires are prevalent in the summer—and fireworks are popular among residents.)

    But overall, the experience was more inconvenient than intolerable. My eating habits were largely uninterrupted, and I began experimenting more with textures and the five basic tastes—sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami—that to my surprise I could still detect in certain foods. The actual flavors like strawberry were gone, but lemons were still sour and dried cranberries were still tart.

    After early optimism, an alarming turn

    I also was optimistic that my senses would return soon. Although it's still early days for research into coronavirus-related anosmia, some data—and personal anecdotes reported in the media—suggested that for most Covid-19 patients with lingering anosmia, the condition fades after around six months.

    But in June, I watched my six-month date come and go with no change. And in July, my symptoms took an extremely unpleasant turn. I took a bite of my usual morning bowl of yogurt, and it tasted vile—I've come to describe the flavor as a combination of gasoline and garbage.

    At first, I assumed the yogurt had gone bad, so I proceeded to make a backup breakfast of scrambled eggs. I didn't make it to the taste test this time; the smell of the cooking eggs was enough to make me open the windows and throw the batch away—outside.

    Thanks to my experience writing about the Covid-19 pandemic, I knew that I'd developed another rare symptom of Covid-19, delayed parosmia. But I wasn't prepared for how challenging this symptom would be to navigate.

    Why might Covid-19 cause parosmia?

    The National Institutes of Health defines parosmia as "a change in the normal perception of odors, such as when the smell of something familiar is distorted, or something that normally smells pleasant now smells foul." Basically, things to me now are either void of taste and smell—or they are borderline unbearable.

    Like anosmia, parosmia isn't new or unique to Covid-19, but the pandemic has caused a surge in cases that have brought the condition into the mainstream.

    The current theory is this: Some Covid-19 patients experience cellular damage to their olfactory bulb, the part of the body that sends signals to the brain that links smells to emotions or memories. As those cells begin to regenerate or heal, they reconnect the olfactory bulb and begin sending what are essentially "test" signals.

    But since humans have about 350 different receptors to detect odors, there is a lot of room for error as these cells begin to regenerate. There is also some evidence that suggests the pattern in which the cells heal can lead to distorted smell or taste.

    The good news is this doesn't appear to affect most Covid-19 patients. One recent study found only about half of Covid-19 patients developed anosmia, and only about half of those patients developed parosmia.

    And the symptoms manifest differently for certain people. One friend who experienced parosmia reported a metallic taste, while others have reported flowers smelling like feces or experiencing bad odors so strongly they feel sick.

    The foods and smells that trigger these reactions also vary. For me, foods that were once a staple in my diet are now unpalatable: coffee, yogurt, eggs, garlic, chicken, salt—really, anything with any flavor or seasoning.

    This also seems to vary by day and product brand, as to my great delight I recently found a yogurt brand I can tolerate (and by "tolerate," I mean the yogurt has no taste at all).

    Smells have been less problematic since the initial egg disaster. I typically struggle to pick up scents unless I hold an item close and breathe deeply—and in most cases, the smell I perceive is putrid.

    When will my Covid-19 'long-hauler' experience end?

    My question now is: When will my senses return to normal (or something that more closely resembles normal)?

    Unfortunately, the jury is still out. Still, experts have said parosmia is a sign that the damage caused by the coronavirus is healing and that the senses of smell and taste are on their way back.

    I'm currently on week four of my parosmia experience, and just last week I had a breakthrough moment that gave me renewed optimism: I was able to smell the sharp, crisp aroma of parmesan cheese.

    It was the first scent I had been able to smell correctly in seven months—and it was glorious.

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