Late on a Saturday afternoon, I heard the spray of the disinfectant can. It was two days after I tested positive for COVID-19 and, in those 48 hours, I’d become accustomed to that sound. I knew the scent well too, a cross between a hospital room and a mall apothecary strong enough to seep under the door of the home office where I quarantined. This time, though, I smelled nothing.
I groaned, knowing that what I figured was inevitable had happened.
When COVID came for me several months after I was fully vaccinated, I experienced no fever or chills. There were no breathing issues; the few times I coughed were to clear my throat of the snot running down it. It was a minor illness—flus have kicked me harder on my ass—one that felt like an allergy attack during wildfire weather. But there was one additional symptom: I lost my sense of smell.
“At some point, smell loss became a hallmark of a COVID-19 infection,” says Dr. Bozena Wrobel, otolaryngologist with Keck Medicine of USC. “Sometimes, the smell loss was even the only symptom the patient had, without even nasal congestion or drainage.”
Dr. Wrobel points to a Harvard University study indicating that COVID-19 smell loss is tied to olfactory support cells rather than neurons, which might be why this symptom presents differently in comparison to other viruses. “The smell loss can be very sudden and then also the recovery can be very rapid,” she says.
In the past, I’ve had colds and bouts of allergies that made it much more difficult to detect a scent, but, in those instances, a decongestant or even an order of Jack in the Box jalapeño poppers revived the sense. With COVID-19 smell was non-existent, and no decongestant or spicy dinner could fix that. When I put a cup of freshly brewed coffee under my nose, I couldn’t smell anything. Fortunately, this was my worst symptom, but it became a particularly frustrating one, especially since I couldn’t be sure when my sense of smell would come back. It could be weeks, a nurse on the phone told me.
With COVID-19 smell was non-existent, and no decongestant or spicy dinner could fix that.
“A majority of patients will recover,” says Dr. Wrobel. For some, that does happen in weeks. For others, it can take months to regain their sense of smell. In some instances, people who’ve had COVID-19 might develop parosmia, a condition where people detect unpleasant smells—like smoke or rotten meat—that aren’t there. It’s a phenomenon that Wrobel says doctors like herself are seeing on a much larger scale since the onset of the pandemic.
I lost my sense of smell, but could still taste food to an extent. I grasped the sweetness of chocolate chip cookies and, as a result, ate far too many of those. The saltiness of seaweed chips remained potent as well. I could gauge the spice level in meals. Any appreciation for the complexities of flavor combinations, though, was lost on me.
Smell and taste are two separate senses, controlled by different cranial nerves, but they are related. “The majority of the perception of flavor comes, actually, from the sense of smell, not from the sense of taste,” Dr. Wrobel explains. Our sense of taste can identify broader categories, like sweet and salty, but, when it comes to the subtle distinctions between flavors, we need smell.
There are bigger health problems that can arise from not being able to smell our food. The most obvious is the potential for food poisoning, as odors can tell us when something is spoiled even if the item looks alright. Dr. Wrobel notes, though, that an inability to smell can lead to a few different issues. “Some people overeat because they want to try everything,” she says. “Some people don’t eat. They completely lose interest in eating.”
She adds that others might start adding more salt to their food. “Salt is the easiest way to enhance some kind of taste to the food,” she says. But, too much of it can lead to health problems like hypertension.
That Monday—four days after my positive test, two days after the loss of smell—I almost felt OK. The sinus headaches were gone. I could breathe through my nose again. When it came to smell, though, my nose was still useless. That’s when a new wave of anxiety hit. The worst of the illness was in the past, but what if this one lingering symptom decided to stick around for a while? It may sound stupid but a persistent thought was: what if my pits stink and I’m the only one who doesn’t notice?
There are a lot of ways your life changes without smell. Someone who can’t smell can be more vulnerable to dangers like fires or gas leaks. Yet, there are less obvious impacts of this sensory loss. One of those is hygiene. “You have to almost have a confidant person— your family member or your friends whom you trust—to tell you that you’re using too much perfume or you’re using the wrong deodorant,” says Dr. Wrobel. She points out, too, that without smell, you might not immediately notice a dirty diaper or dog poop that needs to be cleaned up.
Then there are pheromones. “Patients who lose sense of smell, if they are, let’s say, still single or they are on the search of finding a mate, might be losing on that part of the intimate experience,” says Dr. Wrobel.
Depression, she says, is one issue that can arise as a result of the loss of smell because that sense is so closely tied to things we enjoy in life. Meanwhile, there are treatments that have been used even prior to the pandemic to help people who have lost their sense of smell. Dr. Wrobel mentions olfactory training, where patients associate smell with memories and visual cues. Scent is reminds us of people, places and experiences that are part of our lives.
On Wednesday morning, less than a week after that positive test, I picked up the faintest trace of vanilla in the shower, but wrote it off as my mind playing tricks on me. Certainly, it was just the memory of the body scrub I love. A short time after that, though, I grabbed a hair product that I hadn’t used before, spritzed it and immediately thought of my sister, who had given it to me. Of course, she would get hair stuff that smells like coconut sunscreen. “Oh, shit, I can smell again!,” I either considered shouting or actually shouted in the bathroom.
That night, I ate the best dinner I had in ages. It was chicken and mushrooms, nothing out of the ordinary, but I tasted the depth of the mushroom gravy and the way the herbs mingled with the chicken in ways I hadn’t noticed before the COVID ordeal. Over the course of the next day or two, I inhaled scents— lemon disinfectant wipes, tea tree oil shampoo, coffee—as if experiencing them for the first time. In a way, I was.
When my quarantine period ended, I reentered the world intent upon smelling everything. I went incense shopping, buying everything from the fruity scents to the churchy ones. I relished in the salt-and-grease aroma of the French fries that made me hungrier with every step as I carried lunch home. Even when the most foul city odors made me question my newfound love affair with this sense, I reminded myself that, at least, I know where not to walk.
I was incredibly fortunate that my COVID case was mild and that my sense of smell had only disappeared for a few days. In that brief period of time, though, I realized how undervalued smell is. It helps us avoid danger and navigate social situations. It affects our relationship to food and sex. It impacts our memories. It reminds us of the people and places we love.
“It covers so many aspects of our life,” says Dr. Wrobel. “I think that the moment that you lose it, you realize how many of those aspects have been connected to your sense of smell.”
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