COVID-19 Can Warp the Senses, Even After Recovery

Carolyn Crist

November 09, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

A rare and unusual symptom of COVID-19 — a loss of taste and smell — may affect the senses even after patients recover, according to The Washington Post.

COVID-19 survivors are now reporting that certain smells seem strange and some foods taste awful. This is known as parosmia, or a temporary disorder that distorts odors and often makes them unpleasant.

"It's more debilitating in some ways than loss of smell," Richard Doty, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Smell and Test Center, told the newspaper.

Typically, parosmia indicates that the sense of smell is returning, which is a good sign. However, it may last for an extended period of time and can make some foods intolerable. The worst offenders often include fried foods, eggs, coffee, and chocolate, according to AbScent, a group that promotes awareness around smell loss.

"Coffee is really the saddest thing for me because I really just enjoy having a cup of coffee in the morning," Jennifer Spicer, MD, an infectious diseases doctor at Emory University, told The Washington Post.

Spicer contracted COVID-19 in July and recovered, and she was eating and drinking as usual. In October, however, a glass of wine tasted like gasoline, and she knew something was wrong. Meats began to smell rotten, garlic was revolting, and even her mint toothpaste was off-putting.

Like Spicer, other COVID-19 patients have reported bizarre smells and tastes. Some say they're smelling odors that aren't there, which is a distortion called phantosmia. They're smelling cigarette smoke constantly or rotting garbage.

In June, the Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research published a report that found 7% of 4,000 COVID-19 patients had a distortion in their sense of smell. Parosmia and phantosmia often occur after viral infections, so doctors haven't been entirely surprised about the coronavirus-linked reports, but they know it's frustrating for patients who are recovering.

"In many ways, having a parosmia in the setting of covid-19, or any other viral upper-respiratory infection that causes smell loss, is actually kind of a good thing because it suggests that you're making new connections and that you're getting a regeneration of that olfactory tissue and returning to normal," Justin Turner, medical director of Vanderbilt University Medical Center's Smell and Taste Center, told the newspaper.

Sources:

Washington Post, "When coffee smells like gasoline: Covid isn't just stealing senses — it may be warping them."

AbScent, "It Smells Disgusting! Parosmia and Phantosmia."

Chemical Senses, "More Than Smell — COVID-19 Is Associated With Severe Impairment of Smell, Taste, and Chemesthesis."

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