The condition wherein a person's sense of smell has become distorted is known as parosmia. People who have experienced parosmia have described how scents that they used to find pleasant are now unbearable. If they try to eat food that smells different to them, it might make them feel nauseous or sick.
Some scientists already have a hypothesis for how COVID-19 might damage a person's sense of smell, but these experts believe more research is necessary to understand the virus's long-term impacts. More research is also required to understand the possible treatments for smell-impaired COVID-19 survivors. (Related: Coronavirus survivors regain their sense of smell by going through "fragrance journey" with renowned perfumer.)
One person whose sense of smell has been distorted by the virus is Marcel Kuttab, who got infected and recovered from the coronavirus last year.
Kuttab, 28, a pharmacist from Massachusetts, first noticed something was off last year while she was brushing her teeth. Her toothbrush tasted dirty, and so she threw it out and got a new one. But then she noticed that it was her toothpaste that was the problem.
This was just the start of her olfactory troubles. Onions, garlic and meat were all putrid and coffee began smelling like gasoline.
Kuttab wanted to figure out what she could and could not eat, and so she experimented to figure out what foods her senses could tolerate. "You can spend a lot of money in grocery stores and land up not using any of it," she said.
For Janet Marple, 54, a corporate banker from Minnesota, coffee and peanut butter smell like burning rubber or a sickly kind of sweet.
"I literally hold my breath when shampooing my hair, and laundry is a terrible experience. Even fresh-cut grass is terrible," said Marple.
Brooke Viegut, 25, from New York City, started experiencing parosmia in May 2020. She caught COVID-19 in March of that year during a business trip to London. Like many others, she lost her sense of smell.
But before Viegut's sense of smell returned, she started experiencing parosmia. The smell of garlic, onions and meat became unbearable for her. At one point, she even thought broccoli smelled like chemicals and many fruits tasted like soap.
Today, Viegut still has not fully recovered. But she has become more optimistic because a lot of different foods now taste as they should. "I'd say that's progress," she said.
But Viegut is still concerned that her distorted sense of smell might lead to her getting into an accident, especially if she is unable to detect a gas leak or a fire. This is what happened to a family in Waco, Texas, back in January. Nearly all the members of the family lost their sense of smell because of prior COVID-19 infections. They escaped, but they discovered the fire too late and it burned their house down.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, parosmia did not receive a lot of attention from health experts.
"We would have a big conference, and one of the doctors might have one or two cases," said Dr. Nancy E. Rawson, vice president and associate director at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. Monell is an internationally recognized nonprofit research group that focuses on research linked to taste and smell.
Despite the lack of attention on parosmia, health experts know enough about it to come to certain conclusions. For example, one French study blamed parosmia on upper respiratory tract infections.
Today, scientists have discovered more than 100 reasons why a person's sense of smell might disappear or become distorted. These causes included viruses like COVID-19, as well as sinusitis, head trauma, and neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.
But one thing scientists do not have is a timeline for when parosmia will disappear. Mainstream media outlet the New York Times interviewed five COVID-19 survivors who first developed parosmia in the late spring and early summer of 2020. None of them have fully regained their normal senses of smell and taste.
Clare Hopkins, the president of the British Rhinological Society and one of the first health experts to sound the alarm regarding smell loss and distortion, believes people can be optimistic despite the lack of information.
"There are daily reports of recovery from long haulers in terms of parosmia improving and patients being left with a fairly good sense of smell," she said.
Learn more about how COVID-19 continues to affect the lives of survivors by reading the latest articles at Pandemic.news.