Why Covid-19 patients are suffering from distorted and phantom smells

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Some Covid-19 patients are reporting that foods including coffee, chocolate and red wine smell awful. Photo: Kevin Schafer via Getty Images

(Stephanie Feuer/ Smithsonian Magazine) — On a perfect August night, Carol Pitz, a career consultant from Chanhassen, Minnesota, was looking forward to her 25th wedding anniversary dinner, especially because she and her family had spent much of the spring isolating after exhibiting symptoms of Covid-19. She woke up one morning in March, and couldn’t smell or taste anything, then developed a mild cough and fatigue. Not sick enough to be tested at the time, she and her family later tested positive for antibodies to SARS-CoV-2.

Months later, Pitz and her husband were seated at a table overlooking the lake at her favorite restaurant. She ordered the special sea bass and Brussel sprouts, and the dish looked lovely when it arrived. But after a few bites, Pitz had to stop eating. Instead of smelling her food, she was overcome by a foul, and hard-to-describe scent. “It’s a unique smell,” she says. “I don’t even know what it is. It’s like a combination of burnt toast, and something just icky enough to make me sick to my stomach.”

What happened to Pitz is not unique. Of more than 4,000 respondents to a multilingual, international study of people with recent smell loss published in Chemical Senses in June, 7 percent reported parosmia, or odor distortion. Facebook support groups dedicated to parosmia and phantosmia, the clinical names for specific smell disorders, have grown drastically in the past few months. Instead of a scentless world, an increasing number of people who lost their sense of smell because of Covid-19 are complaining that things just don’t smell right. (…)

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