Like countless other young Aussies, I caught Omicron over the holiday period. I had a fever, body aches, headaches, chest pain, shortness of breath, fatigue. As I was starting to feel better, what I didn’t expect was losing my sense of taste and smell on day five.
With Delta, anosmia (loss of taste and smell) or parosmia (distorted sense of taste and smell) was an early warning sign of infection, so I thought I was in the clear once my symptoms all hit. But alas.
Anosmia is less commonly associated with Omicron than other variants, but still affects many people.
When I asked around, turns out I knew loads of people who had or still have anosmia after catching COVID.
What is it like to lose your taste and smell?
At first, I couldn’t taste most flavours. Everything was dulled and some flavours completely gone.
But I didn’t have a blocked or runny nose, so it was Very Fucking Weird. I felt totally discombobulated, like I’d just woken up from a jetlagged nap and didn’t know what time it was.
I could sort of taste banana, but not mango. I could taste tomatoes, I could taste smoky ham, but that was about it for the first three days.
Then the parosmia hit. As some flavours returned, random foods started tasting like bin juice. I had a sip of lager — the least fruity beer on the market — and it tasted overwhelmingly like overripe fruit.
I had no idea this was a thing until I read my colleague’s story about it and it SUCKED. That beer was undrinkable.
Luckily my senses returned to normal after about a week.
Anosmia and parosmia behave completely differently for everyone. I asked some friends how they found it and no two experiences were alike.
Ari: “It felt like I just did a massive bump of coke, my nose and throat felt numb. It lasted a few days and then faded. Can now taste normally again.”
Tyler: “My sense of smell and taste disappeared pretty much immediately after becoming ill with COVID. It’s still not back after three weeks.
“I feel like the brain embellishes some taste especially of things I can remember. Like I had Vegemite this morning I had a glimmer of hope that it’s coming back, but maybe because I remember the taste so vividly.”
Tess: “Super weird experience and coffee tasted like actual chemicals. Citrus and anything sour was super intense when I started getting the senses back, but before that everything was just dull and smelt kinda burnt.”
Nick: “Got COVID on NYD only got taste back in the last couple of days. Could only taste salt really.”
Cinzia: “I lost mine two days before I knew I was positive, this was back in September. Lost complete taste and smell for about five weeks. And even now nearly 6 months on, my smell isn’t 100 per cent.”
How does this happen?
To put it bluntly, it’s unclear.
First of all, taste is largely determined by smell, which is controlled by the olfactory system.
Our tongue only detects the five main tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter and umami. The majority of your taste buds are actually in your nose.
Tastes are perceived via the rear nasal pharynx, particularly after you swallow and when your tongue lets air into that passage and onto the olfactory globe where we smell.
The olfactory nerve sends message to our brain to help us recognise different flavours. If the globe, nerve or other olfactory cells are attacked by a virus like COVID, it can disrupt this process.
To infect a cell, the virus must bind to a receptor on the cell membrane, and COVID largely binds to cells in your nose.
We don’t know much so far, one team of Seattle scientists confirmed that the virus did target the sustentacular cells, which are cells that basically maintain the structural integrity of olfactory sensory neurons.
This is why most people with anosmia report still being able to ~feel~ the sensations of sour, sweet, salty but can’t pick up anything else. It’s less likely for the basic tastebuds on your tongue to be harmed by COVID, but of course it has been reported.
How common is loss of taste and smell with COVID-19?
Prior to Omicron, data from the UK’s ZOE Symptom Study App found anosmia to be in the top 10 most common symptoms of COVID-19, estimated to affect around 50 to 60 per cent of infected adults.
38 per cent of positive UK adults on the app reported anosmia as their only COVID symptom.
It also found the symptom is twice as common in adults as it is in children.
More recently, UK Health Security Agency scientists have reported that it may only affect 13 per cent of Omicron patients compared to their data of 34 per cent of Delta sufferers.
How long does it last?
It really varies. About one in 10 cases of smell and taste problems persist after COVID infection.
It commonly starts to return or fully returns within a week. For some it takes a couple of weeks. For others the process can be slow, taking months.
Without any longterm data we don’t know if it can be truly permanent, but if it works like other viruses that cause this symptom, it very well could be.
It returns fully within six months for four out of every five people who’ve recovered from COVID-19, according to one ongoing study.
It also reported that participants who were younger than 40 recovered their sense of smell at a higher rate than those older than 40.
Are some more likely to get it than others?
It’s pretty much the luck of the draw, but there is some evidence to suggest some people might be more prone.
One recent study of 70,000 people suggests there is a genetic predisposition to loss of taste and smell with infection. Researchers found that for people with a particular placement of a gene on a chromosome located near two olfactory genes increased their changes of losing their taste and smell from COVID by 11 per cent.
It may not sound like a huge breakthrough, but anosmia is kind of a medical mystery.
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Can I do anything to get it back?
Anosmia is not well understood, and it’s pretty under-researched because it’s not necessarily life-threatening or debilitating, so there is no cure yet.
While there is no known treatment for COVID-19-induced anosmia or parosmia, there are some home remedies or therapies that may help.
Anthea: “I tried that TikTok orange thing last night feel like could taste my toothpaste for the first time this morning, but then couldn’t taste other stuff.”
Smell therapy, or olfactory training, is more widely acknowledged. It involves smelling strong scents such as citrus, perfume, ammonia, or eucalyptus each day to retrain the brain to remember how to smell.
You best chance at recovery is within the first six weeks, so get cracking early.
Try using a variety of strongly-scented essential oils and smelling them every day. Breathe in deeply and concentrate.
You can do the same with taste by eating strongly-flavoured, familiar food.
Francesca: “I ate pickles every day to try and get my sense of taste back. It was like my barometer. At first they just tasted really vinegary but a week later I can taste them properly.”
James: “I’ve been eating the punchiest food I can think of that are vinegar and spice-heavy. Salt and vinegar chips, anything with super strong sauces etc. It’s the only stuff I can kind of taste, and I’m hoping to shock tastebuds back.”
Otherwise, just make sure you’re as vaccinated as possible to minimise the risk of severe symptoms and, oh yeah, try not to catch COVID.