Peter Simpson was sitting on the couch with a glass of wine one evening in September when he suddenly realized something was missing.
“I noticed I had no sense of smell,” recalls Simpson, 59.
He grabbed a can of Febreze and sprayed it in the air. He could feel the droplets raining down on his hand, but there was no smell.
The previous weekend, Simpson and his wife Jenn Campbell had attended an outdoor dinner at the National Arts Center with another couple. A friend of theirs called a few days later to say he had tested positive for COVID-19 and advised them to get tested as well.
Our sense of smell is very much a part of our well-being, and people are barely starting to realize it now.– Chrissi Kelly, AbScent
Simpson and Campbell have also tested positive.
While his other symptoms disappeared after about a week, now, almost nine months later, Simpson’s sense of smell remains unreliable at best.
âI can smell something one day, and not the next week,â he said. “Some things smell so bad it literally becomes smelly.”
Long term condition
Simpson is among a growing number of people around the world who have experienced loss or decreased smell, or anosmia, immediately after contracting COVID-19. Months later, many – 43 percent, according to a British study – also develop parosmia, a condition that can make familiar smells suddenly disgusting.
For some – around one in 10, according to UK charity AbScent – the disease persists and medical science has been unable to provide them with a clear prognosis.
Because the two senses are so inextricably linked, many who have experienced parosmia have also experienced a distorted sense of taste. Simpson is among them.
âSomething maybe tasteless, or just tastes bad. I know it’s not supposed to taste like that,â he said. “I wouldn’t say there is anything that tastes normal.”
This past weekend, Simpson, a former Ottawa Citizen arts editor who has written about food and reviewed restaurants at home and abroad, cooked up one of his favorite meals for Campbell and a guest: rainbow trout sous vide with olive oil, salt and pepper.
“I took a bite of it and spat it out reflexively,” he said. “It tasted like dirt, like musty dust or it tasted like dirt. But two other people ate the same piece of fish and worshiped it.”
“An alien smell”
Stephen Smith, who contracted COVID-19 at the start of the pandemic, knows what it’s like to live with this kind of unpredictability at the table.
âI don’t know what is safe for me to eat because some days some things will taste okay and some days won’t,â he said. “Like peppers, green or red peppers in a salad – sometimes they’re safe, other days I just can’t eat them.”
Smith, 50, grew up in Ottawa and now lives in Montreal where he works in that city’s video game industry. A former CBC reporter, Smith shared a candid account of his experience in December.
Like Simpson, Smith initially completely lost his sense of smell. About three months later it started to come back, but familiar scents like soap suddenly seemed different.
âLike it came back, but it wasn’t,â Smith recalls. “It’s really hard to describe because it’s a scent you’ve never really smelled before. It’s like an alien scent.”
Around the same time, some of Smith’s favorite foods started to taste bad.
âThe first thing I really noticed was the peanut butterâ¦ one day it tasted like mold,â he said.
Perhaps the cruelest aspect of his condition is that Smith’s true sense of smell will return intermittently, as it did one morning last winter when there was bacon cooking. in the kitchen, to disappear again.
“There are these little victories, but it could come out like this,” he said.
The question of recovery
While there is a lot of scientific research being done on the link between COVID-19 and anosmia / parosmia, there are very few concrete answers, especially to the key question that haunts Simpson, Smith, and countless others: when are they going to end. restore?
“The sense of smell is still a mystery. There is a Nobel Prize for the person who finally puts the pieces together,” said Chrissi Kelly, founder and CEO of AbScent, a UK-based charity that provides a support and information for people with olfactory disorders.
The COVID-19 Odor Loss Organization Facebook group now has around 29,000 members.
âTheir first question is, ‘When am I going to be 100% recovered?’â Kelly said.
Kelly, who first lost her own sense of smell to a severe sinus infection in 2012 and then again after contracting COVID-19, is working with the University of Reading to research some foods that cause the “disgust response” in some people.
“We are making really interesting progress on this,” she said.
Kelly warns that the answer to the recovery question will take time, however, as researchers scramble to understand why signals between the nose and brain are failing and how it all relates to the virus that causes COVID-19.
“The problem with scientific research is you have to collect the data points, you have to put them together, analyze the data, write the article, put it through the peer review process, and it’s getting longer and longer. , ” she said. “It all just takes an excruciating time.”
Scary waiting for answers
This wait for answers can be agonizing for people like Simpson and Smith, Kelly said.
“There are almost two things going on with these people: there’s the loss of smell, and then there’s the anxiety about the loss of smell, and they don’t see it as two different things. , they just see it as a really big, horrible thing that sits over their heads. “
Along with the uncertainty and anxiety, some patients say losing their sense of smell and taste means losing an integral part of who they are.
âBefore the pandemic, we had people over for dinner every weekend,â Simpson said. “It’s part of my identity, and it takes some adjustment.”
âOur sense of smell is really part of our well-being, and people are barely starting to notice it now,â Kelly said.
“The real story of the misery of the loss of smell is about the sense of self, relationships, people and places, the passage of the seasons and the social experience of food, sitting together, the pleasure. In fact, to lose your sense of smell, it is not to experience pleasure. “
Kelly said that many people with parosmia also feel alienated because they have a hard time describing their condition to others.
âThese are not real smells that we smell. What we are feeling is kind of bad wiring, a scrambled message that our nose sends to our brain, so naturally there is no way to describe that,â a- she declared.
There’s a fundamental connection between smell and taste, and memory and emotion, and it’s something else people with parosmia have lost, Kelly said. For Smith, it’s about the unique smell of the house when he walks through the door, the aroma of fresh croissants escaping from bakeries in his neighborhood of Saint-Henri, or the smell of hair. of her six-year-old daughter after a bath.
âIt takes that dimension out of life, which is a dimension that you probably take for granted until it’s gone,â he said.
Still, there is hope. Kelly said scent training, which she compares to physiotherapy or stroke rehabilitation, can be an effective recovery method, but only for those who stick to it.
“I think that in a year, a lot of people who are suffering will have recovered, or will have recovered sufficiently to have regained their quality of life,” she said. “There will be a very small percentage of people who don’t recover, but I think it’s a very, very small percentage.”