When Life Lacked Flavor: COVID-19 and Taste Loss
COVID-19 took away my ability to taste and smell; I’m still recovering from its effects.
I tested positive for COVID-19 back in June 2020. I was lucky enough to experience relatively milder symptoms. My fever oscillated between 99 and 101 degrees, and I had all the trappings of a normal flu—cold, blocked nose and sore throat. However, what was supposedly the most benign symptom had the most long-lasting impact on me: losing my sense of taste and smell.
Surprisingly, despite having sinusitis issues since my childhood, I had never once experienced this particular sensory loss. As a foodie, this symptom was the most stress-inducing for me and permanently changed my view on the significance of food in my life.
My Anosmia Eventually Morphed Into Something Worse
I had never realized before how flavor is actually a combination of taste and smell. Imagine having your tea without its heavenly aroma. For an avid tea drinker like me, it was torture having my favorite beverage of the day without tasting it. Similarly, for all I knew, I could be eating sand instead of my pasta. Since this symptom was still quite novel and not many people realized what it truly meant to experience it, most of my family made fun of me, saying that it would make me crave food less.
However, I quickly realized how my lack of taste was making me prone to binge-eating behavior. I started eating more despite tasting nothing just to put my taste buds to the test. Thankfully, as a psychology student, my professional training helped me quickly recognize this problematic behavior and nip it in the bud before it got maladaptive.
Still, it led me to explore the fascinating world of taste and smell. Upon further research, I found that the complete loss of smell I was experiencing was called anosmia, a common indicator of the COVID-19 virus. This phenomenon is usually caused by a sinus infection, nasal congestion, allergies or old age. Most of the time, anosmia is a temporary condition that is resolved as soon as the root cause is treated.
My anosmia, preceded by my COVID-19 diagnosis, persisted for a good three months. Then, one day, I started to smell something smoky, like burnt rubber, while washing my face. I dismissed it as the water smelling funny, but when I went outside, that smell followed me. Pretty soon, I realized my absence of smell had been replaced by the general presence of just one smell—that of burnt tires. Interestingly, I was still able to faintly detect a nice scent, like of perfume or a flower, but any bad odors were replaced by this consistent burnt rubber smell, which varied in intensity. If I walked past a dumpster, the odor of burnt rubber became overwhelming, and then eventually receded. Depending on the intensity, it could at times be a nauseating experience.
My Life Became Distorted With Toxic Smells
This peculiar phenomenon of distortion in the taste of smell is called parosmia. It causes common things you encounter every day to seem like they have a disagreeable odor. I experienced that when vehicle fumes, which previously never bothered me, smelled overwhelmingly like burnt rubber or at times, sewage. Parosmia has also been identified as a commonly reported symptom amongst people suffering from long COVID-19. Before, my tea would smell like nothing; now it smelled nauseatingly like rotten garbage. They say hindsight is 20/20, and I realized that after most things started smelling revolting when they’d previously smelled like nothing.
The entire experience was extremely disconcerting because the distorted smell was entirely novel. It took me a while to figure out that my olfactory sense was now different from others. Similarly, when it came to taste, it felt like everything I ate for the first two months was a plate of sand. Eventually, I started tasting spicy things, which meant that I began dousing my food in Tabasco and sriracha sauce just to experience some flavor. Soon, I could taste sweet things as well, a nice respite for my massive sweet tooth.
What was irksome was how most people around me dismissed my concerns about lacking taste and smell, casually remarking that I was “imagining” it or that I was being ungrateful, because I had admittedly gotten off easy compared to the more severe positive cases.
Losing My Sense of Smell Has Affected My Social Life and Relationships
This experience has definitely changed my relationship with food. I distinctly remember my lowest point was when my birthday came as I was experiencing acute anosmia. I excitedly ordered my favorite cake, but while it looked delectable, I couldn’t taste any of it. It left me depressed for days. I was gutted, realizing how I was deprived of the joy that food brought into my life on a daily basis. I used to love having eggs in any shape and form—be it poached, scrambled or fried—but now it has been almost a year since I have had them. While cooking, all I’ve been able to smell is the nauseating odor of rotten eggs. My appetite has fluctuated, and my mood followed its trajectory. The worst part has been not knowing when this would end.
How I socialized also changed while I was going through these long-COVID symptoms. Most social interactions involve the act of eating, and an impaired sense of smell or taste adversely impacted my ability to enjoy these interactions. It’s been 18 months since I tested negative for COVID-19, and to some extent, I still have a distorted sense of taste and smell.
I’m still happy and grateful to have recovered more than 70 percent of it. Slowly, the flavor is coming back to my life. I can’t wait for the day when I regain it completely.