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“These onions are so mild,” caterer Catherine Woodcock, 63, thought as she tearlessly chopped yellow onions in her Blairstown, N.J., home in late December. Yet the smell of sautéing onions drew her husband, Stan, into the kitchen, where he remarked on their pungency.
That night, the chicken divan tasted bland to Woodcock. She wondered: Did it need more curry powder? Stan, on the other hand, said it had plenty of flavor.
That meal marked a sudden change in Woodcock’s sense of smell and taste, a tell-tale symptom of COVID-19. Three days earlier Woodcock’s mother-in-law had pushed her plate away, saying the food tasted bad. She tested positive for COVID-19 two days later. Now Woodcock couldn’t smell anything. Mint tea made her lips tingle, a sensation caused by a chemical sensitivity called chemesthesis, but it tasted like lifeless water.
Studies show more than 80 percent of COVID-19 sufferers experience a change in their ability to smell or taste. The majority are women. Most, like Woodcock, lose their sense of smell and taste entirely, sometimes for months. A small number experience heightened taste and smell, causing nausea and vomiting.
Taste, smell, and chemesthesis normally work together to produce a panoply of flavors. Without one or more of those, taste goes flat. COVID-19 interferes with those normal processes, and researchers are trying to figure out why.
A Harvard Medical School study last year pinpointed the cause of smell loss: A disruption in the nasal epithelium, a skinlike layer of cells responsible for registering odors. The good news is those cells regenerate every six to eight weeks. One study showed more than three-fourths of COVID-19 patients who completely lost their sense of taste and smell recovered it within one month.
Taste, smell, and chemesthesis normally work together to produce a panoply of flavors.
But 4 percent showed no improvement. With more than 120 million positive cases worldwide, this leaves perhaps 4.8 million people unable to smell or taste, more than the population of Los Angeles.
That loss not only affects pleasure but can make recovery harder. Greg Poland, director of the Vaccine Research Group at the Mayo Clinic, said our God-given senses are integral to our desire for healthy food, which aids healing. Losing the sense of smell and taste is “a really difficult problem, and we don’t have any treatments for it. It’s frustrating for clinicians, patients, and their families.”
Woodcock previously lost her sense of taste in 2007 during chemotherapy for breast cancer. Before the treatment, her doctor had warned it could happen, but she was still surprised when all the food at a party she attended tasted the same. At the time, she wasn’t worried because the loss had a predictable reason and a definite end: “It’s God’s will,” she thought. “It will come back when it comes back.”
But this time, there’s much scientists don’t know about COVID-19. Woodcock might, like millions of others, need to wait months before she can once again smell laundry fresh off the line, rotting garbage, or burning toast. Not only can she no longer smell the soap she uses to bathe her mother-in-law—she can’t even smell when her mother-in-law needs to bathe. “How unpleasant for others,” she said with a laugh.
She’s experienced hopeful signs: a whiff of vanilla just after she opens the bottle and the smell of beef stew as she lifts the lid. Even if her smell and taste don’t return, Woodcock plans to continue catering, perhaps with an official taste tester in tow.
—Amy Lewis is a World Journalism Institute mid-career course graduate