Brenda Anderson Off Topic

COLUMN: A taste of what’s in store for some COVID long-haulers

A distorted sense of taste or smell is making life miserable for many in recovery from the virus

The first sign that something was wrong came late last spring with a forkful of barbecued pork ribs.

It’s a meal I’ve made and enjoyed many times over the years. Except this time, the meat had a strange metallic flavour. It was unpleasant, but not alarming, and I assumed I had simply messed up something in the recipe or used bad ingredients. But a family member familiar with the dish insisted it was fine.

The next clue came wrapped in milk chocolate, when I treated myself to a two-pack of Reese’s cups only to discover they were, in a word, inedible. The best way to describe the flavour would be “musty ammonia.” Think of the way urine-soaked straw from a barn floor smells and imagine how that would taste.

The culprit, I eventually discovered, was (mercifully) not chocolate, but peanut butter. Still, pb is one of go-to foods for protein, and it had suddenly become (and remains) nausea-inducing.

Then, in mid-August, after enjoying fresh watermelon all summer long, I purchased a small package with my lunch. When I bit into the first juicy slice, my mouth filled with the putrid taste of rot.

Two weeks ago, the black olives in my Greek salad joined the revolt and became, well, revolting.

It was time to do some reading and try to get to the bottom of this gustatory mystery.

During my search for answers, I learned some new words: parosmia and parageusia/dysgeusia among them. These are the distortion of smell and taste, respectively, and are being recognized as symptoms of long-COVID among people who lost one or both senses after contracting the virus.

Despite taking extensive precautions, I got COVID-19 last March. I was lucky to have what medical experts consider a mild case. I felt terrible for several days – coughing, tired and achy from head to toe – but I never struggled to breathe. About four days in, however, I lost my sense of smell completely. As strange and unfamiliar a sensation as it was, it lasted only a couple weeks.

The other shoe didn’t drop for another month, when I cooked that batch of ribs.

Parosmia/parageusia, say the experts, can occur when the brain attempts to repair damaged olfactory nerves. This rewiring of the circuitry is not foolproof and for some people, previously pleasant scents or flavours are replaced by unbelievably foul smells or tastes. It never seems to go the other way, from what I can gather.

It’s a condition that was recorded prior to the current pandemic, but this virus is definitely taking its toll.

As part of my effort to figure out what was happening and what else I might expect, I joined a private Facebook group for people suffering with post-COVID parosmia and related disorders.

An active group with nearly 36,000 members all around the world, it’s been a huge eye-opener about a topic that is so far getting little attention.

Some members, even a year or more after their COVID diagnosis, describe everything around them as smelling like rotting meat or raw sewage. For others, almost all the food they eat tastes like hot garbage or, in one case, blood. Onions, garlic, coffee and chocolate are common problem foods, but a lot of folks in the group are subsisting on a handful of “safe” foods. But even those aren’t guaranteed to stay that way.

Their desperation for a cure is evident in the posts. Many report feeling depressed and express fear that they will never recover.

My experience, so far at least, hasn’t come close to the horror some are living and I’m hopeful that it won’t.

But there is real frustration in hearing people continue to refer to COVID as “just another flu bug.” I’ve had the flu plenty of times in my life. This is brand new.

From the hospitalization stats provided regularly by the province to testimonials from people whose lives have been dramatically altered – whether through the loss of a loved one or their own brush with death – there is plenty of evidence that COVID-19 is more than just the seasonal flu.

The fact that part of my brain is being rewired by it would be more than enough to convince me of that if I weren’t already paying attention to the information coming at me every day.

We’re getting perfectly good input on the subject from our eyes and ears. So why, 18 months later, some still to choose to ignore – or distort – these facts, remains a mystery.

Brenda Anderson is editor of the Peace Arch News.