For millions of COVID-19 survivors, the struggle back to health often is slow and painful. And for many, that recovery comes with a lingering and disheartening symptom ― a loss of smell and taste. Just when the body needs nourishment to fight back against the disease, every bite of food is utterly tasteless.
“I’m a foodie, so not being able to smell or taste anything put me into a depression,” Jane Nilan, a coronavirus survivor, told HuffPost. The Minneapolis resident contracted the illness in mid-March, when much less was known about the symptoms and trajectory of the disease.
“I knew that yogurt with live cultures would be good for my gut, so I ate some of that every day,” Nilan said. “I made rice in a steamer, but I really couldn’t enjoy it. I had no interest in eating, but I tried to ‘trick’ myself with textures that I thought might trigger at least the memory of certain foods, with varying levels of success. I ate a lot of Cinnamon Toast Crunch, that’s for sure.”
What’s going on here?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention describes ”new loss of taste or smell″ as a symptom of COVID-19. As cases continue to rise, more people will be affected by loss of smell, known as anosmia, and loss of taste, known as ageusia.
While many people report a loss of taste as a primary symptom, it’s a loss of smell that’s often a worse culprit, since most of what we perceive as taste is actually a combination of smell and taste. (Skeptical? Try the jelly bean test while holding your nose.)
“It’s estimated that around half of COVID-19 patients experience changes to their sense of taste and smell. Most will recover within two to three weeks, but many thousands are still working towards recovery many months later.”
Valentina Parma is chair of the Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research, research assistant professor in psychology at Temple University and an adjunct member at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. She and her colleagues have gathered and analyzed thousands of surveys from people who have lost their sense of taste or smell because of COVID-19.
“When this damage occurs as part of COVID, it tends to be a more extreme issue than when people lose those senses due to flu, colds or other respiratory issues,” Parma said.
The loss also tends to occur suddenly. “People will say, ‘I was sipping coffee, and it was delicious, and then suddenly I couldn’t smell or taste it,’” she said.
While there are many hypotheses about why this is occurring, Parma said that evidence now suggests the virus could be binding itself to the proteins of supporting cells that surround olfactory neurons. “When those cells are attacked by the virus, the neurons stop working,” she said.
There is no known cure for loss of smell and taste. But the body can — and sometimes does — heal itself, at least eventually, Parma said.
“Time is an important variable for recovery,” she said. “There is plasticity in our system, and olfactory neurons can regenerate and reestablish function. How long this process can take following a COVID infection is still under scrutiny.”
AbScent offers hope
After Chrissi Kelly lost her sense of smell in 2012, she founded the nonprofit patient advocacy group AbScent. In the months since the pandemic began, she’s seen a groundswell of interest and a growing audience for the organization’s coronavirus-related Facebook support page, which has more than 14,000 members.
“It’s estimated that around half of COVID-19 patients experience changes to their sense of taste and smell,” Kelly said. “Most will recover within two to three weeks, but many thousands are still working towards recovery many months later.”
Kelly encourages those for whom food tastes miserably bland to focus on creating contrasts, like creamy with crunchy, tart with sweet, or warmer temperatures with cooler ones. For those suffering from parosmia, a condition in which food can smell disgusting, she suggests avoiding trigger foods like roasted meat, fried foods, eggs, onions, garlic, minty toothpaste and coffee.
One clever workaround for coffee lovers is to drink canned cold brew, using a straw, Kelly said. “That way it goes right down the throat, so you’re less likely to gag on the aroma.”
Kelly said that smell training could help in recovery. She began doing the training on her own and has regained enough to experience what she describes as a “good quality of life.” The training requires actively sniffing a panel of scents twice a day for at least four months, spending at least 20 seconds per scent and being mindful about the experience.
“It’s safe, anyone can do it and it’s well researched and recommended by doctors,” Kelly said. “It isn’t a cure, but it can be a way of hastening and amplifying the natural recovery process.”
“Chocolate smelled like red meat. My taco soup could have been water, for all I knew.”
The AbScent website offers tips on making your own smell training kit, or you can purchase one from them directly, with all proceeds going to the organization.
When an RDN can’t taste anything
Amanda Frankeny is a registered dietitian nutritionist who lives in Boulder, Colorado. Like Nilan, she contracted COVID-19 in March, when little was known about some of her symptoms.
“During the second week I was sick, things started tasting and smelling funny,” Frankeny said. “Chocolate smelled like red meat. My taco soup could have been water, for all I knew. For me, the disease was slow and steady. Each day brought something new, as my other symptoms worsened. Losing my sense of taste was one of the worst parts.”
She used her professional knowledge to make sure she stayed nourished. “I was intentional about getting enough to eat at every meal,” Frankeny said. “I ate from every food group, and I tried to eat regular, colorful plates of food even when the blandness took over.”
Other tips from Frankeny include remembering to drink water regularly. “A dry mouth can affect your ability to taste,” she said. “Fluids help dissolve taste components, allowing them to reach the taste buds. Also, chew slowly to release flavors and increase saliva production.”
While it’s tempting to want to treat yourself when you’re sick, Frankeny warned against highly processed foods like chips, fast foods and sugary treats. “There’s no point in wasting a pint of delicious ice cream if you can’t taste it. Instead, eat things that make you feel a little better. Try a hot drink or soup, mostly because higher-temperature foods will feel nice.”
More suggestions appear on the National Institutes of Health’s website section about taste disorders, including using aromatic herbs and hot spices to add more flavor, avoiding combination dishes like casseroles that can hide individual flavors and dilute taste and, if your diet permits, topping food with small amounts of cheese, bacon bits, butter, olive oil or toasted nuts.
Tasting and smelling again: ‘Glorious, glorious’
For Jane Nilan, other COVID-19 symptoms went away within weeks, but smell and taste didn’t return for three months. “After about two months, I noticed those senses creeping back in,” she said. “I began to go to extremes to see how much I could taste, so my diet was full of hot curries, Mexican food and lots of spices. I was so afraid it would go away again, so I pushed myself right to the edge.”
Nilan said that while a return to health has been a blessing, being able to enjoy her favorite foods is another one. “I had no idea how important those senses were to me,” she said. “I still open jars of spices before I use them, stick my nose in and say, ‘glorious, glorious.’”
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