“Some people will say it smells like sewage, it smells like rotting meat, it smells like the bottom of the garbage pail,” Kelly described. “The foulest and disgusting thing you can think of.” Chrissi Kelly, the founder of AbScent, describing how people with smell and taste distortion perceive food.
SARS CoV-2 which causes Coronavirus disease was reported in Wuhan for the first time in 2019. After that, the world as we knew it, changed drastically.
The most interesting symptom of the virus was perhaps the loss of smell and taste by patients. People who recovered shared their covid experience and sentiments about the ordeal with the world relieved that the worse was over. However, soon after, a unique after-effect of covid came to the surface. And somehow, it was worse.
DISTORTED SENSE OF TASTE AND SMELL:
Only 12 % of the cases suffered from this phenomenon and it takes 4-6 months to recover. A small population of people recovered from covid reported that their sense of taste of smell had become distorted. Their once beloved food items suddenly had a foul odor. Some described it as smelling garbage and eating rotten meat.
Importantly, there is a lack of awareness on this topic. Most people are aware of anosmia and ageusia, which are loss of smell and taste respectively. Only the people suffering are aware of this rare condition that’s tormenting covid patients long after they have recovered.
So what is Parosmia and dysgeusia?
Parosmia is when the sense of smell becomes altered, and it usually becomes worse. Dysgeusia is the same condition but with taste buds. People find the taste of food to be extremely awful. In some cases, these can occur side by side and people often taste the exact thing they smell. Here is a way to bring this into perspective. Some people find the heavenly smell of coffee to be repulsive while chicken/meat smells like something left to rot for months. Food smells like garbage. Milk tastes like petrol, toothpaste is like a strong chemical, tea is like burnt rubber while shampoo and apple smell like. Onion and garlic are a big No. On a lighter side, one subject reported that “sanitizer smells like cheesecake.”
Indeed, this is not an easy experience to go through.
The science behind the phenomenon
“Things” are essentially a mixture of various compounds and chemicals. When these are eaten and smell together, they become pleasant. According to scientists, people suffering from smell and taste disorders are not able to register all of the components of a particular thing, be it food or items like perfume, soap, and toothpaste. As a result, they complain about it being too “chemical”.
The system of smell in our body is termed the olfactory system. Parosmia occurs when there is a problem in any component of this network. Scientists have proposed three possible scenarios for smell distortion due to SARS CoV2.
- There is a physical blockage in the upper part of the nasal cavity which results in inflammation over there. The odorants cannot reach the olfactory receptors and so the signal is not received by the body.
- The cells of the nasal cavity are infected.
- SARS CoV-2 has directly attacked the olfactory cells.
All these cause damages to sensory organs of smell. As a result, the body becomes alert and tries to mend the problem. Now, this is where the phenomenon of “smell distortion” occurs. As the body tried to patch up the damaged neurons, some of them become displaced. The neurons become “misguided” and they relay signals to wrong parts of the brain which leads to altered fragrance.
Scientists also tried to understand the phenomena behind taste distortion or dysgeusia. Viruses enter the cell by binding to a molecule on the cell called a receptor. SARS CoV2 binds to ACE2 (Angiotensin-converting enzyme 2) receptors which are in cells in the lungs. Experiments were conducted on monkeys. Researchers revealed that these receptors have been found on cells of taste buds and salivary glands of monkeys as well as humans. This means that if SARS CoV2 attacks the salivary glands a result of which people cannot taste the “real taste” food.
The problem of parosmia and dysgeusia is not new: people have been suffering from this before the onset of covid-19. However, it gained attention during the pandemic era. Researchers are still trying their best to understand this problem and are hopeful to find a cure soon.
How to live with it?
This brings us to the main issue: how to live with such conditions. Once the initial stress and shock of the condition have worn off, people found alternate ways to fill their diet.
A small survey conducted among sufferers revealed that onions, eggs, meat, and garlic, among others, smell and taste the worst. This is a problem in countries like Pakistan where these are key ingredients of dishes. In this case, people devised alternate ways to fill their diet. These vary from person to person depending on the intensity of their condition. It is a matter of trial and error to find out which food suits their palette.
Bland foods such as boiled rice, noodles without any flavoring, roti/paratha, stir-fried or steamed vegetables, simple cake, and sweet foods. Cold/ room temperature foods are less smelly. Some people shared a list of items they can eat which included soya sauce, mayonnaise, sesame oil, spice, honey, cheese, boiled chicken, corn, olive, and potatoes. Lots and lots of potatoes.
This brings us to a possible solution for the condition. Till now, there has been no cure. However, “smell training” may be able to fasten the process.
Parosmia is a sign that the body is recovering from the loss of smell in covid. Smell therapy makes use of strong-smelling things such as eucalyptus, essential oils, rose, coffee, spice clove, or lemon. Patients are advised to smell it for 20 seconds, twice a day for four months. They should concentrate on what they are smelling too “correct” their senses.
Apart from the physical effects of this condition, the affected people are also suffering psychologically. The frustration of not being able to taste your favorite food, or eat food normally in general, take a negative toll on one’s mentality.
A student had remarked “It’s been more than a year and I’ve forgotten how things use to smell like” in the survey conducted.
There is a high ratio of irritability, fear, frustration, and anxiety about their future. Some even stop eating food claiming “they hate it too much”. This disturbs their diet leading to weight loss, weak immunity, and clinical depression.
These victims may be small in number but their suffering is valid. They need to know that they are not alone in this. There are countless people, on/off-internet, who are in this ordeal with them. Some get distressed while others even admitted that they are treating this as a chance to get fit. So, for starters connecting and sharing their experience will help immensely.
Lastly, I say this as the sister of one victim of this cruel condition, the attitude of family members/ guardians and company matters a lot. Understanding and tolerance of their behavior while being as accommodating as we can, can surely help them walk on the path of recovery with high spirits. After all, as a philosopher had once said, “this too shall pass.”