The only way to tell COVID-19 apart from the flu or a cold with certainty is to take a coronavirus test. That’s because most of the symptoms from a novel coronavirus infection are also encountered in other illnesses, even the more unusual ones. Still, there is one symptom that patients and doctors will immediately associate with COVID-19, and that’s the sudden loss of smell (anosmia) and taste (ageusia). The symptom does go away for most people, and both smell and taste return after a while. However, there’s a different smell- and taste-related symptom that’s a telling sign of COVID-19. It’s called parosmia, or the inability to smell the correct odor of food and drinks. Parosmia also impacts the sense of taste, and it does so in the worst possible way.
Parosmia can appear in COVID-19 patients after anosmia, reports The Washington Post. If the sudden loss of smell and other flu-like symptoms did not convince you that you might be infected with the novel coronavirus, then tasting oil when you drink coffee should certainly do the trick.
A 35-year-old infectious disease physician at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta thought she was getting over COVID-19. The fever, chills, and severe fatigue had improved, and her senses of smell and taste were returning. She then took a sip from a fresh glass of red wine, and it tasted like gasoline.
“I was like, ‘Oh, this is not tolerable. This is not pleasurable at all,’ ” she told The Post. “So I ended up dumping the entire glass of wine down the sink. It was that bad.”
Spicer found the scent of cooked garlic and onions intolerable. Meat started smelling like it was rotting and she had to switch from mint toothpaste to a bubblegum-flavored one because of the smell. Even her coffee started smelling like gasoline. “Coffee is really the saddest thing for me because I really just enjoy having a cup of coffee in the morning,” Spicer said.
She wasn’t the only one, as other COVID-19 patients also suffer from parosmia. Following the infection, the nose can misidentify the smells of different foods and drinks, which can obviously make eating and drinking a painful chore.
A study from July said that 7% of some 4,000 people reported smell issues, which means the number of people dealing with parosmia during the infection can be quite high.
It’s unclear why the symptom appears, but scientists speculate that the nose’s neural tissue needs to recover. Specifically, it might be the olfactory receptor neurons that need to recover and regrow before the regular sense of smell is restored.
“Normally, you have a smell, let’s say a rose, and a rose hits six keys,” or neurons, Dr. Donald Leopold told the paper. “If you have a cold caused by a virus or if you catch the coronavirus and it kills some of those neurons, let’s say you’ve only got three of those neurons left, that no longer allows you to smell a rose correctly. Just like if you hit those three keys, it wouldn’t sound like the same beautiful chord you played on the piano.” Leopold is a professor of otorhinolaryngology at the University of Vermont Larner College of Medicine.
There are several remedies that affected people can try at home to retrain their sense of smell. The training involves smelling different odorants like essential oils at least twice a day for 10-15 seconds at a time and repeating the process for weeks. Scents including rose, lemon, clove, and eucalyptus are used in smell training.
A simple way to make bad odors go away is by plugging your nostrils with wet cotton balls during meals. Switching to smoothies is another strategy that can work, according to scientists who spoke to The Post. People can also avoid the foods they link to bad smells during COVID-19 recovery.