Covid savaged me last year. It started by rendering my food tour business defunct, stripping me of a passion project that had started to thrive. Then, like many others living alone in London, it jailed me into a depressive, solitary lockdown. When it felt as if life finally had me on my knees — I caught Covid. And lost my sense of taste and smell.
Losing your scent is life-changing, but few people can understand the dire consequences unless they suffer it themselves. It is like listening to your favourite song with the volume turned right down. If you are a food-obsessed person, the impact of such a loss hits like a sledgehammer.
You miss the smell of salty butter melting into warm bread, piquant curry spices assaulting your nose, the heady blueberry, milk chocolate and leather of your favourite Shiraz. But you also miss the mundane scents, like the pages of a new book or simply the solace of fresh bedsheets. It may sound trivial, but it’s these minute moments that create connections… memories. The effect on me was overwhelming — both personally and professionally.
I was diagnosed with Covid in November of last year. I had landed in my hometown of Perth, Australia, beginning a mandatory two-week hotel quarantine. I remember feeling tired, slightly achy, with a light cough — all symptoms of long-haul travel combined with the fatigue of recent events. Not one part of me thought I could be infected. I had just survived nine months in the Covid-infested UK. In retrospect, my gut tells me I contracted the virus over the 24-hours it took me to get home.
The first couple of days felt innocuous. It was after the diagnosis, around day three, that my physiology changed. Covid feels like the worse flu you have ever had. Intense exhaustion, headaches, dry cough, constant nausea and diarrhoea. Sexy, I know.
Brain fog is a real thing. I hadn’t considered the possible danger of solo quarantine — my friends and family had. They would phone numerous times a day to check-in. Sometimes I would drop off mid-sentence, forgetting the topic or remiss to the fact that I was even on the phone. My breathing became shallow, so shallow that I would doze off and awaken with a start, gasping for breath.
By day five I lost all scent and taste, but I was so ill, I really didn’t care.
Anosmia is the loss of all scent. Some confuse this with the loss of taste- because the two often feel like one and the same. The loose science behind it finds that what we enjoy in food is the flavour, which itself is a combination of scent and taste. Without flavour, food loses its appeal.
Gradually by day 14, my taste started to return. I would take pleasure in the cheapest chocolate, for I could detect sweetness. Or peanuts, for the crunch and texture. But largely, however, food offered no smell, equalling no taste. This muted recognition lasted for weeks, then months.
As a sommelier and food lover, the loss was devastating. A double blow of equal violence. Not only did I miss the joy of eating, but how could I possibly comment about wine when its aroma was not discernible. Slowly, the reality of Covid hit home. It was far worse than I imagined sitting alone in my London flat.
After three hard weeks in quarantine, my body started to fight back and function. Recovery was certainly not linear. Two symptoms would taper off, only for another to flare up 24-hours later. My hair was shedding like a Persian cat. At one point I was so weak that I threw up just taking a shower. It was around this time that I started to develop mild parosmia. A phantom affliction that startles you with some of the foulest smells imaginable.
Parosmia… Everything’s Coming up Roses
Medics believe that Covid damages the olfactory nerves (or the surrounding cells) in our epithelium (nasal cavity). As a rudimentary framework, when we breathe in, scent is received by these nerves and delivered via a pathway to our brain. On receipt, our brain deciphers the scent and informs us of what we are smelling/tasting. As the body starts to recover from the virus, these pathways may heal, but can sometimes ‘cross wires’. The brain receives a signal that doesn’t correlate with what it recognises. The confusion leads to a phantom (most often, unpleasant) scent being fed back to us — a phenomena known as ‘parosmia’. On a primal level parosmia shields us from harm. Our body is trying to keep us safe, repulsing us as a precaution, preventing us from ingesting something toxic.
My initial bout of parosmia occurred as soon as I awoke. It was a peculiar smell, like nothing I had encountered. Think raw meat in a musty, boys locker room. Overnight the virus had me grossly overheat, so I’d awaken with pyjamas clinging to my skin, hair dishevelled and wet, as if I had indulged in a midnight swim. I used to think the stench was me — a product of the fervent sweat of restless sleep — for as soon as I washed my face, the smell would disappear. I now know that this was circumstantial. The parosmia would eventually return to haunt me at all times of the day.
Almost hilariously, a short while later, life’s more offensive odours — like sweat — would smell of nothing at all or instead morph into a convoluted floral aroma. Sounds great but is rife with potential problems. I went on a date and was struck with such paranoia, I doused myself in clinical strength deodorant. I downed a mouthful of milk, only to find it was putridly sour. My shit literally smelt like roses. Ha. The irony.
Long Haul COVID-19…
After eights protracted weeks, my strength hinted at a return. I could go for a slow jog without collapsing. Of most significance, like a longed-for marvel, my pre-Covid scent and taste crept back in.
I’ve been asked: ‘What was the first thing you tasted?’ I wish I had a showstopper answer but it wasn’t a showstopping event. Recovery consisted of micro-steps, tiny shades of scent building day by day. By February (three months in) my scent was back to around 70–80% — almost cause for celebration — just not quite.
Maybe this sounds selfish, but the joy of eating wasn’t the same. I used to lose my mind over a grilled toastie laden with molten cheese. The slightly burnt edges the ultimate treat. After Covid, I would eat the sandwich but lose interest halfway through. Post virus, your pleasure centre doesn’t fire up quite the way it used to.
I considered writing again but felt fake. Years of study assured me knowledge that was specialised in my field, but I was missing the delicate perfume that gives wine its identity. I had landed in Perth to write a series on West Australian wine — some of the best in the world. It was simply not possible. Losing scent rendered my work useless, and life… pretty miserable.
In retrospect, I guess I shouldn’t have been so ungrateful, for in the coming months my scent regressed back to half, and then to less than 30%, sometimes cutting out completely by dinner time. Now that’s misery.
April heralded the darkest month, but in the most biblical sense — the storm before the light. I was so distraught I concocted a strict routine, desperate for recovery. Groups such as Absent and Fifth Sense provided an invaluable source of empathy and information. Dedicated Facebook groups consoled me: I was not alone. I started smell training twice a day, keeping a diary on hand to record improvement or regression. A daily multivitamin with additional Vitamin D was fundamental to my breakfast routine. I religiously used steroid nasal spray morning and night.
During this time my parosmia went into overdrive. For weeks I smelt stale cigarette smoke 24/7. Certain foods, like mint, chocolate and sesame, became intolerable. All three reeked of the same vile combination of sewage, faeces and a sweet, nameless chemical. I got used to it but would sometimes forget. I would mindlessly brush my teeth, only to violently dry wretch at the pungent fume. Time felt like a rollercoaster of recovery, regression, anger and acceptance.
One random day in May, my condition started to improve. Just when I had lost all hope. I don’t know if the above ritual helped and I don’t seek to offer false remedies to those still desperately suffering. All I know is that my recuperation coincided with this routine. It could just have easily been chance or my body’s healing path.
Hope versus Reality
It’s now June and I feel I have recovered my scent. It scares me to even write that — schoolgirl paranoia of jinxing myself — but the shift is tangible. During scent training, I used to strain to recognise oils such as lavender. Now the smell is so cloying I recoil when opening the bottle. I’m also obsessing about food most days and deriving pleasure from eating. So much so that hedonistic gluttony seems, yet again, on the cards. On a personal level, that feels like me.
Would I be so transparent about my experience if I hadn’t recovered? To be honest, probably not.
It would have been a killer for my career. I’m aware that I am one of the lucky ones, and cognisant of those who have lost their scent without regaining a sniff. I am not so naive to ignore the possibility I may regress, but raising awareness is important. When I speak with fellow long haulers, the majority struggle with friends and family who cannot understand their despair, for anosmia is not as obvious as losing another sense, such as sight. But as humans, we depend on all five senses to perceive and experience the world, so professional ruin aside, the personal blow is equally cruel. A lack of empathy, combined with the virus’ brutal consequences, cast a dark shadow on an already grim diagnosis.
COVID-19 and its collateral damage not only sabotaged my personal life but made me fear for my livelihood. For over a year I didn’t speak about food or wine. Today, I can comment on the nuances in a glass without feeling like a fraud. For countless people suffering scent loss or other long-haul symptoms, mine is a small victory. But hope, that life can turn around.
Suriya Bala is a food and wine writer/sommelier. She is also the founder/curator of FEAST Food + Wine Tours and writes a blog under the guise Hungry Somm.