August 8, 2022

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I caught Covid in October 2020, and lost my sense of smell and taste. Back...

I caught Covid in October 2020, and lost my sense of smell and taste. Back then I worked in a school, so catching the virus felt inevitable. At first, I didn’t think too much about it: anosmia (loss of sense of smell) is a common symptom of the virus. After four weeks or so, and a brief stint in hospital, I regained some of my ability to taste things: salty, sour, sweet. My nose was still misbehaving, but my tongue was starting to slowly whirr back into action. I thought I was on the mend.
By the middle of December, however, things started to get strange. In the house, I was certain I kept smelling stale ashtrays. I’m not a smoker, so it made no sense. Then I started smelling exhaust fumes. I looked online and found other people reporting similar experiences of phantosmia (smelling of odours that aren’t there). I’d be consumed by these aromas even in pure, clean air.
It was a total assault on my senses: morning to night I had a repugnant fragrance in my nostrils. I’d drive my family to distraction, asking if they could smell it, too, and struggled to rustle up an appetite. Occasionally, out of the blue, I’d be blasted with a strong smell of fresh lilies, which was a welcome relief. Sadly, having flowers around the house had no effect. The smells stayed for about two months. Towards the end of 2020, I’d become used to my new condition: things were still a little wonky, but you adapt.

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In early 2021, I was eating batch-cooked spaghetti bolognese with my kids when I realised the sauce didn’t taste right. I assumed it had spoiled, so we stopped eating it immediately. The next time I had red meat, however, I encountered the same problem. It wasn’t long before nearly everything I ate, and soon smelled, was revolting to me. Simple cooking smells made me retch, violently; if my food had been anywhere near an onion, I’d feel physically sick.
Things smelled and tasted like rotting flesh. Imagine an animal had crawled into your greenhouse in the height of summer, died, and you discovered it two weeks later. That’s what, day in and day out, filled my nose and mouth. I would open the fridge and be certain something was decomposing; my mum received frequent requests to come over and give things a sniff.

There are only a few things I can safely eat – cold pasta, yoghurt, bananas – without throwing up

I searched for bland food, settling for a simple ready-meal macaroni cheese. Soon that, too, became impossible for me to eat without nearly – and sometimes actually – vomiting. It turned out it had onion powder in it. Peppers, garlic, fried foods and meats – they all induced the same reaction. By April, half a year after my initial Covid diagnosis, there was only a handful of things I could safely eat – cold plain pasta, bananas, yoghurt and cereal – without throwing up. It’s the same to this day. Since August 2021, I’ve rarely felt hungry. I only eat when I feel I should. When I do, it’s far from pleasant.
When lockdown restrictions lifted and I ventured into town, I realised it was a bigger problem. At home I could control my environment, but smells are everywhere on the street: traffic, perfume, takeaways. I couldn’t face going for a meal or to the cinema, and setting foot in a supermarket was a gamble, too. Swimmer’s nose plugs help, though they are uncomfortable and look ridiculous. I use them so I can make meals for my family. I’ve also started trimming down foam earplugs and lodging them in my nostrils.

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You don’t realise how heavily food features in life until it becomes an issue; weddings, funerals, the Christmas “do”. I’m happy to go along and not eat, but people stare and it feels awkward. Instead, I turn down invitations. I miss cooking and baking. Now I barely eat 500 calories a day, but I haven’t lost any weight. When you’re overweight your doctors aren’t too bothered that you’re not eating enough.
The worst part, medically speaking, is that my condition is still a bit of a mystery. There’s not even a definitive consensus as to why it happens. I’ve met others online who are suffering like me – it feels as if we have been forgotten. Until there’s a cure, which may never happen, it’s a waiting game. Will I one day wake up and find my senses have returned to normal? I honestly have no idea.
As told to Michael Segalov
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