This article originally appeared on VICE Romania.
“I try not to make faces, so that I don't offend people,” says Claudia, a 29-year-old communications specialist from Bucharest. “I can't tell my boyfriend I feel sick because I can't stand the smell of his deodorant. I can’t grimace when my roommate enters the room because I smell the perfume she just sprayed. So I shut up, I try to hold my breath and to get over it.”
Eventually, Claudia’s senses recovered, but in March of 2021 she started to detect a petrol-like odour coming from her boyfriend’s clothes. She’d tell him to change, but the scent wouldn’t go away. “A few days later, that smell was everywhere,” Claudia says. “I sensed it no matter what I ate or drank. I couldn’t eat anything. Even water tasted like that.”
Claudia waited it out, and finally the petrol smell faded away. But then, in mid-April, things took a turn for the worse. Instead of petrol, she started smelling a much stronger chemical scent coming from almost any kind of food. “It’s as if the steak you’re eating smelled of detergent,” she says. The things that didn’t reek of chemicals started smelling of garbage, mould or sour milk – “something both sweet and disgusting. I feel like vomiting all the time.”
Claudia is experiencing one of the effects of long COVID, a raft of ailments caused by coronavirus that can endure long after the illness’ initial symptoms have abated. The loss of the smell, or anosmia, is a common symptom for people with COVID-19, but according to a small 2020 study, 89 percent of patients recover their smell either completely or partially after about a month. Claudia falls into the small group who either don’t recover it at all, or who develop parosmia, a condition where your sense of smell becomes distorted.
Neurologist Mihai Radu Ionescu, from the Neuroaxis Clinic in Bucharest, says we don’t yet know why parosmia affects long COVID patients. “Our sense of smell relies on more than 300 different smell receptors,” he explains. “These receptors activate in a certain pattern, a code let’s say, that allows us to recognise a particular scent – like apple cake, for instance.”
One of the hypotheses that could explain this phenomenon is that the smell receptors and neurons affected by the virus regenerate at different speeds. “Some of them might regenerate before others, affecting these scent codes,” says Dr Ionescu. As a result, scents that would normally activate a certain pattern now lead our brain to interpret the signal as a completely different odour.
Some people only perceive certain strong smells as offensive, while for others many smells are horribly distorted. “Probably these differences depend on how many of their receptors were damaged and how much of their olfactory code was broken,” says Dr Ionescu. “People who have only a few affected receptors might find some smells unpleasant or weird, but if only a few of your receptors are functional, all the codes will be wrong.”
Scientific studies are underway, but it will still take us a while to fully understand how widespread the phenomenon is and how exactly it works. Though far from a reliable survey of the numbers affected, some Facebook support groups for people who have anosmia and parosmia as a result of COVID-19 have gathered as many as 27,000 members. People are also sharing their experiences with these issues on Instagram and TikTok.
Bianca, 21, currently studying in the city of Cluj-Napoca, lost her sense of smell and taste in November of last year. Back then, she says, she could drink vinegar without flinching. But because nothing had any flavour, she quickly lost her appetite. “I still tried to eat, because I had an eating disorder when I was a teenager and I didn't want to go back to that,” she says.
Fortunately, three months after recovering from COVID-19, Bianca’s senses came back and were almost normal. But at some point during those three months, she started detecting an unpleasant odour that nobody else could smell. Medically, this is known as a phantom smell or phantosmia. Bianca also now experiences the smell of meat in a distorted way, especially when it’s cooked. “It’s a questionable odour, like rotten or rancid vegetables,” she says.
For Sorina, a 19-year-old student in Timisoara, her parosmia also appeared suddenly. She lost her sense of smell immediately after contracting the virus in September of 2020, and when it returned two months later it was totally off.
“I started smelling weird scents out of the blue and I didn't know why,” she says. “I couldn't eat or drink anything – everything smelled of mould. Even I smelled of mould.” After reading up about it online, she realised it was an aftereffect of COVID-19. “I didn't go to the doctor, because I didn’t know which doctor to go to. I really want to fix this, because I can't enjoy anything. It's the worst, and I have no idea how to deal with it,” she says.
Dr Ionescu says we also don’t know exactly why our brains interpret distorted smells as foul more often than pleasant. Euosmia – a condition where a person perceives a regular smell as more appealing than it actually is – is far rarer than parosmia. “I don’t have an exact explanation for this, but it probably has to do with the fact that it's much easier to recognise an unpleasant smell, like rotten, poisonous food, than to recognise a pleasant scent,” he says.
Camelia, 39, also lost her sense of smell when she had COVID-19. “Fried onions started to smell of garbage and sweat. Nettles [commonly eaten in Romania], which are my favourite food, started to taste terrible – they made me choke,” she says. Coca-Cola, bananas, pears – to her, they all taste and smell like garbage. “My life has been seriously affected,” she says. “I have to avoid the food court in malls and fast food restaurants on the streets, or else I’ll vomit. Easter was miserable! All my neighbours were cooking and I felt like puking the whole time.”
Unfortunately, there aren’t many treatment options for parosmia. “In principle, the degree of initial impairment is one of the main factors to determine how quickly we’d expect the person to recover,” says Dr Ionescu. He and his team have tried some drugs available on the market, but the results were poor and the risk of side effects high. “Basically, there is no treatment other than waiting for your sense of smell to get better,” he says.
One of the few options currently used to help during the healing process is olfactory recovery or smell training. The basic idea is you should pick a number of strong scents – say four to start with – and smell them for 20 seconds each in the morning and evening daily, really trying to focus on your sensations. It’s simple and safe, and although it is at present unclear how effective it is, it can give those affected some hope while they wait.
The good news is that parosmia does get better, at least for some patients. Cristina, 23, also from Cluj-Napoca, is one of the lucky ones. For a few months she couldn't touch alcohol, cheese, yoghurt, onion or garlic. “My father put a lot of effort into cooking for Easter,” she says. “I didn't have the heart to tell him I couldn’t eat because everything smelled terrible to me. So I ate his egg salad, even though I thought it tasted disgusting.”
However, in the last few weeks, the foul smells Cristina has been detecting have become less intense – the first step, she hopes, on the road to recovery.