Two years later, some COVID patients still can’t smell or taste
The loss of taste and smell are common COVID-19 symptoms, but until it happens to you, you might not understand how devastating it can be. I only lost my senses for about a week, but combined with the loneliness of isolation and the lingering thought that they might never return, eating became a joyless activity. I polled my Instagram followers, and many reported losing their taste and smell for three, six, or nine months. A few haven’t gotten it back since they got COVID-19 two years ago.
“Probably eighty percent of patients who get COVID have some change in their sense of taste and smell, and for most of them, that change is pretty temporary,” said Dr. Sandeep Robert Datta, Associate Professor of Neurobiology at Harvard Medical School.
Datta has been studying the olfactory system for the past 15 years, but he says the medical community still doesn’t totally understand why COVID causes anosmia, the official medical definition for the loss of smell.
“It looks like cells in your nose temporarily get shut off or damaged in some way, like a light switch,” said Datta. “After a couple of weeks of healing, the light switch gets turned back on and your nose works again. In the patients that lose their sense of smell for longer, for months, it looks like the cells that are responsible for actually smelling, the neurons in your nose that detect odors, those cells might be getting damaged by the virus. It takes a long time to rebuild those circuits and to heal that kind of extensive damage.”
He says a lot of people who suddenly lose their sense of smell and taste experience depression, anxiety, and isolation. Part of that is simply losing the joy that comes from tasting and enjoying food, but Datta says it’s also because smell is so closely linked to memory and emotion; they’re physically located right next to each other in your brain.
“Smell is a super ancient sense, so it’s like your sense of smell is hardwired for emotion and memories, much more than for the other senses,” said Datta. “This explains why when we smell something that reminds us of our grandmother’s kitchen, we can be overwhelmed with emotion.”
If you can’t smell, you also can’t taste. A lot of what we taste reflects the aromas we breathe in through the nose. Scent also travels up the back of your throat into your nasal cavity while you’re chewing. And if you think losing taste and smell is bad, there’s a COVID symptom that’s far worse.
“They develop something called parosmia,” Datta said. “Parosmia is when you smell something and it actually smells different than it’s supposed to. People with parosmia smell coffee, and instead of smelling delicious, it smells like gasoline. For those patients, in particular, it’s a real challenge to find foods that they can tolerate, given that everything suddenly smells like gasoline or turpentine or feces.”
They don’t know for sure what causes parosmia. One theory is that humans use their sense of smell to detect if something’s dangerous or poisonous, so when you lose your sense of smell, the body overcompensates and tries to warn you that everything is dangerous, by making everything smell bad.
“On Day Four of losing my sense of taste, I started craving really crunchy, crispy foods, desperate to experience some sensation,” Datta says texture is one way to make eating more enjoyable during this time.
“When I was younger, I myself lost my sense of smell,” Datta said. “I gravitated towards food that had a ton of texture, and that food was bacon, egg, and cheese sandwiches with tons of hot sauce. The way that we detect hot sauce is different from smell and taste. There’s another sense that no one talks about, a secret sense, called chemesthesis, where a whole different set of cells and neurons are responsible for detecting things like spicy and cool. The normal cells in your nose are responsible for detecting smells, and the cells in your tongue are responsible for salt or bitter or sweet. There’s actually a whole separate chemosensory system devoted to the cooling sense of menthol or the spicy sense of peppers. So I would load up on the hot sauce on these sandwiches. I could also taste the crunch of the toast and the kind of buttery-ness of the egg.”
This interview originally aired last year on an episode of my podcast Your Last Meal, featuring celebrity guests Ben & Jerry, one of whom has never had a sense of smell or taste! In the episode, Ben & Jerry reveal how being anosmic led to their famously chunky ice creams. Listen on your favorite podcast app or here.
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- Rachel Belle hosts the James Beard Award nominated podcast Your Last Meal and she's an Edward R Murrow award winning feature reporter. Follow Rachel on Instagram.