To say I am food-obsessed is an understatement.
From the time I had teeth with which to chew, I was an avid eater. As a child, my parents knew that when I asked what time it was, what I really meant was: is it lunchtime yet. This passion for eating grew as I did, and I became a food blogger – yes, I’m one of those annoying Instagrammers who shares everything I put into my mouth – before making a career in food marketing. I even wrote my own cookbook for guests at my wedding five years ago.
And yet, here I am, 38 years and thousands of meals later, almost unable to eat due to parosmia, a disorder which has completely distorted my sense of taste and smell. Never heard of it? Neither had I. Until I contracted coronavirus.
When lockdown hit in March, so too did coronavirus in our household. My husband barely had any symptoms, while my daughter had a cough and one night of a fever. I, however, had every symptom going for three weeks. When I was starting to finally feel more normal, I realised I had lost my sense of taste and smell. Friends joked this was the worst thing that could happen to someone like me, but no one could know what would follow.
In June, after believing that the virus had been out of my system for two months, I suddenly started to smell very strange and unpleasant smells. I noticed that coffee, onions and garlic in particular all smelled wrong – worse than wrong, almost rotten. Cleaning products, shampoos, soaps and fruit all started to smell bad too, like sour vomit. I couldn’t quite work out what was going on, and no one else could smell what I was smelling. I knew something wasn’t right.
“Cereal, bread, chocolate, fruit, peanut butter, rice, potatoes – everything all tasted the way I might expect faeces to taste.”
This quickly progressed into almost everything smelling rotten and food starting to taste the same way. Cereal, bread, chocolate, fruit, peanut butter, rice, potatoes – everything all tasted the way I might expect faeces to taste (and if I could give it an even stronger description, believe me, I would).
Suddenly, I couldn’t eat. At all. I spent weeks feeling completely lost, emotional, full of tears and mostly, hungry. Incredibly hungry. Everything smelled and tasted so awful it became impossible to eat anything other than celery, grapes and raw carrots. I had no energy, felt shaky and was worried how this was going to impact me, my husband and, most of all, my two-year-old daughter.
My symptoms went beyond just smell and taste. I was also starting to have painful cuts inside my nose and my teeth constantly felt as if they were incredibly dirty with built-up plaque. My breath felt terrible, though my husband assures me it never was. I felt a bit like I was falling apart, despite thinking that I had been coronavirus-free for some time, and I didn’t know what to do about it.
Google suggested I was suffering from something called parosmia, a disorder which can be brought on following an upper respiratory virus (ding, ding, ding – we have a winner). The more I read, the more afraid I felt. There were horror stories of sufferers never getting their senses back fully, or those who took years to recover. I decided I couldn’t wait around literally wasting away and I went to see the doctor.
“My brain is trying desperately to make sense of the smells around me, but it is unable to receive these smells correctly, so it interprets them as ‘bad’.”
The doctor stuck some cameras up there and finally made some sense (pun, of course, intended) of it all. Coronavirus had effectively killed some of the cells in my nose, which are now trying to repair themselves. At the same time, my brain is trying desperately to make sense of the smells around me, but it is unable to receive these smells correctly, so it interprets them as ‘bad’. This, in turn, means that I am tasting food ‘bad’ as well. The cuts inside my nose, along with my ‘dirty’ teeth are due to the fact that my brain is now hypersensitive in my whole nose and mouth area so any small, otherwise insignificant feeling is now multiplied by 100 to me.
He told me that I need to work on mindfulness (a term I’ve never been a huge fan of) to let my brain do the work required to recover. I also needed to focus on staying stress-free (so easy during a global pandemic), get proper rest, and give my cells and senses time to heal. He gave me nasal steroid drops to help the cells repair, told me to do smell training (which I am now doing through Abscent) and said that he thinks the fact I have any smell at all is a good sign. He predicted that in a year – a year! – I should hopefully be better.
Since then, I’ve seen some improvement. I am now able to eat some things and am working out how to avoid the really problematic foods. I know, for example, that anything caramelised, grilled, roasted, fried or where the sugars have been cooked too much must be avoided. I know I still can’t do cereal, toast, chocolate, nuts, processed food or onions. But I also know that, most days, I can do fish or meat that is simply baked or poached. I can do pasta, brown rice and most dairy products. I can do mostly all vegetables and the list of fruits is growing too.
It is still not easy, and I feel upset I can’t enjoy any food the way I once did. Even if it doesn’t taste bad, it normally doesn’t taste right. I have to plan my meals properly in a way I never did before – and even with all of that thought and planning, on any given day, a food I thought was okay may be inedible again. It’s a constant guessing game.
“We all know the symptoms of coronavirus. But what we aren’t talking about are the ongoing and lasting effects we still know so little about.”
I worry regularly the impact this will have on my daughter, who is perhaps the world’s greatest two-year-old eater. She has always eaten everything and enjoyed food with such gusto, and I don’t want her to pick up bad habits from watching this new way I struggle through meals.
Everyone is talking about coronavirus. We all know the symptoms of cough, fever and loss of taste and smell. But what we aren’t talking about are the ongoing and lasting effects of the virus that we still know so little about. Parosmia is only one such example, but it is a disorder that can last years and have a real impact on sufferers’ mental and physical wellbeing. We need to be talking about it in an open forum because the hardest part for me, and now I know for others also suffering, has been the feeling that others simply don’t get it.
I will continue to share my story so that others know they are not alone and so that we can all become more knowledgeable about the lasting impacts of this virus we’re talking so much about. I am much more hopeful now that by this time next year, I will be able to eat and enjoy my food again the way I once did. I know, if anyone is committed to the cause of relishing meals again, it is certainly me.
Amy Cowley is a marketing consultant and freelance writer. Follow her on Twitter at @greedygirlblog
Have a compelling personal story you want to tell? Find out what we’re looking for here, and pitch us on firstname.lastname@example.org