ONE of the main symptoms of coronavirus is a temporary loss of taste and smell, affecting up to two-thirds of cases.
But now, an even more bizarre phenomenon has been discovered – survivors of Covid are being left disgusted by certain smells.
A side effect of Covid causes people to find smells repulsive. Clare Freer, 47, has been living with the condition called parosmia for seven monthsCredit: BPM Media
People who have previously suffered from the disease say the life-altering side effect makes them feel physically sick at the smell of food, soap, their loved ones and even tap water.
Smells that were once delightful – such as coffee and bacon in the morning, or a glass of wine in the evening – are now repulsive.
Sufferers have described odours as “fruity sewage”, “hot soggy garbage” and “rancid wet dog” – but the most common are burning rubber, cigarette smoke, sewage and sickly sweet smell.
And it can linger for days on end – some say they “feel dirty” when the smell of a food they have tried to eat comes through in their sweat.
The condition is called parosmia, and the number of people suffering is expected to spike due to the pandemic.
Social media users have said the condition has “turned my life into a living nightmare” and made them “feel like a shell of a person”.
AbScent, a smell loss charity helping people through their condition, says parosmia is actually a sign that smell function is returning after being lost due to Covid.
We reckon about 185,000 people in the UK right now have long term smell loss
But it can take a long time to push through this distressing phase, potentially years in the worst cases.
Sarah Oakley, executive director at AbScent, told The Sun: “About one in two people will loose their sense of smell with Covid.
“Ninety per cent will get it back within two or three weeks. But one in ten will have longer-term smell loss. That’s when the parosmia comes in, but not everyone gets it.
“We reckon about 185,000 people in the UK right now have long term smell loss” – and therefore are at risk of developing parosmia.
AbScent says fried foods, roasted meats, onions, garlic, eggs, coffee and chocolate are the worst foods for a parosmic to deal with.
“It can make it really difficult to eat”, Ms Oakley said. “This consequently can affect their weight – some people gain weight and others lose it.”
And it can also affect people’s mental health, because smell, as one of the five senses, “is deeply connected with memory”.
‘I can’t even kiss my partner’
Chrissi Kelly, founder of AbScent, set up a Facebook support group for people with parosmia in June after what she describes as a “tidal wave” of recovered Covid patients reporting the condition.
The group currently has 6,000 members, on top of the Covid support group with 21,000 members, including Clare Freer, a 47-year-old from Sutton Coldfield, who has been living with parosmia for seven months.
Clare told the BBC she had Covid in March and lost her sense of smell. It returned in May, but by June, her favourite takeaways smelled like stale perfume.
Clare had Covid in March when she lost her sense of smell
“I can’t even kiss my partner anymore,” said Clare, who cried most days as a result of her condition
Now, everyday smells have become disgusting to her, including onions, coffee, meat, fruit, alcohol, toothpaste, cleaning products and perfume.
And cooking a meal for her family of four makes Clare “dizzy with the unbearable smells”.
“I can’t even kiss my partner anymore,” said Clare, who cries most days as a result of her condition.
“Although the anosmia [loss of smell] wasn’t nice, I was still able to carry on with life as normal and continue to eat and drink,” Clare said.
“I would live with that forever, in a heartbeat, if it meant being rid of parosmia.”
Breaking down of pathways in the brain
Clare, who can only stomach eating cheese on toast, said her GP was baffled by the condition, which until Covid has been extremely rare.
It is usually caused by an infection, health condition or brain trauma damaging the so-called olfactory senses.
Ms Oakley said people usually regain their sense of smell after Covid for a short time, before losing it again, then suffering with parosmia.
She explained: “When you lose sense of smell through the virus, it’s breaking down the receptors that channel between your nose and brain that tell you what you’re smelling.
“As this rebuilds, the signals coming through this get distorted, so you can’t smell.
“The brain receives smell molecules as a pattern. What’s happening with parosmia is that pattern isn’t getting through in the same way, some of the molecules spike while others get lost.
“You end up smelling something completely different.”
One social media user said his life with parosmia is a “living nightmare”
Another asked: “When will this torture end”
One Twitter user said they are finding it hard to eat with the condition
Kirstie, 20, and Laura, 18, sisters from Keighley, West Yorks., told the BBC they had switched to a vegetarian diet due to parosmia, because meat is a “big trigger food”.
Kirstie said: “We’ve had to adapt and change our mindset because we know we might potentially be living with this for years and years.
“Some people tell us just to power through and eat food anyway. We do try but it’s very hard to eat food that tastes rotten.
“And then for the next three days, I have to live with that smell coming through in my sweat. That’s one of the most distressing smells, and I constantly feel dirty.”
Statistics say about 90 per cent of people with parosmia will recover to some extent. But for the other 10 per cent, it can take years.
It’s unclear what the outcome will be for those with Covid-19, a newly discovered trigger of parosmia.
But AbScent’s Ms Oakley said it will help drive research into the debilitating condition.
She reassured those suffering that “it won’t always be like this, and things will get better”.
There are some methods to help with mealtimes, including eating cold and bland foods, or just unflavoured protein shakes.
“Smell training” may also help, which involves smelling different jars of essential oils and thinking hard about the plant they are obtained from.