Living with long Covid: ‘Gross things smell the same as good things’

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Thousands of people worldwide are suffering from the lingering effects of Covid-19 – from severe fatigue and struggling to breathe to coping with memory or hair loss. Health24 spoke to a number of long haulers. This is Sohpie’s story.

Sophie, 22

Contracted Covid-19 in August 2021.

I went home for a college semester break in August 2021 to see my family. In the last week of the break, I tested positive for Covid-19. So did my mom and dad. We all managed to get through it okay and everything seemed fine. While we all lost our senses of smell and taste, theirs returned about two weeks later. My taste eventually returned to normal, as did my other senses.

But, one morning, about two weeks after I'd gone back to class, I took a shower and realised that my shampoo smelled awful. I thought nothing of it and went to brush my teeth. But my toothpaste tasted just as awful as my shampoo smelled. Again, I thought nothing of it. Days passed and the number of things smelling unpleasant to me increased – this included food, deodorant and my scented candles. I was confused and even asked my roommate if she had smelled anything strange or if things were different for her at all, but she said no.

If you’re sitting in your room that you’re used to, like your bedroom, you don’t know what it smells like because you’re so used to it. But I noticed that there was a weird smell. It’s nothing that I’ve smelled before; it’s not a familiar smell, but it’s still an awful smell. Gross things smell the same as good things.

My coffee and plunger went into storage

I can’t eat chocolate and popcorn anymore, so on movie nights, I’ll just drink tea. Tea still tastes strange, but I drink it with honey because it gives it a sweet taste. But even honey doesn’t taste the way it used to, and I never even liked honey before my Covid-19 infection. 

long covid
Image: Supplied

The most heartbreaking realisation was that I could no longer stand the smell and taste of coffee. My gran had bought me some really good ground coffee and my parents had given me my own coffee plunger which I had been using for a good part of the year. So the coffee and the plunger went into storage. I thought it was just the area I was staying in, and maybe things would go back to normal once I returned home.

No change at home

So, the time came for me to come home for the December holidays. The first morning I was back, my dad made coffee and I felt repulsed by it. It was so disheartening to realise that this was how I would experience smells now, until who knows when. I then did some research and realised that it was called parosmia. Now, in February 2022, my taste buds still haven't returned to normal.

The thing is, even if you know what is wrong, nobody tells you how to cope with it. It's not just the altered taste buds that are the issue, there is the social side of it.

Food is such a huge part of our lives, we associate it with socialising, comfort and any kind of event. Every now and then my dad will ask me if I want coffee, forgetting. He doesn't do it with any hurtful intentions, he just genuinely forgets.

Yearning for mom's food

It's not a "loud" symptom, especially for someone who doesn't want to make every eating experience miserable for everyone around them. It's quiet and only affects one person. Anyone not suffering from it doesn't realise how much it affects one. You can't smell your favourite perfume in the morning or be excited by the aromas of dinner coming from the kitchen.

Every time you try to eat something, you hope that maybe this time it's over. Every time you're disappointed, wondering when the nightmare will end. 

My mom’s a great cook and a great baker. She’s just fantastic with food. I would love to taste my mom's mac and cheese and lasagna again; to eat her chocolate chip cookies; to enjoy garlic bread which I love, but which tastes awful now; and to drink a fresh cup of coffee in the morning.

For now, hot sauce and mustard are my friends, even though they don’t taste normal. But the hot sauce is “stimulating” – it makes my taste buds feel something else instead of the other things. And mustard has a really sharp taste. But they are both sauces that I didn't have a taste for before Covid. I also want to be able to enjoy a shower without feeling disgusted.

I know there are many others who share the same experience. I haven’t seen a doctor or specialist about it yet, but I’m on the verge of doing so because the way things are at the moment isn't good. 

*Many people suffer from the long-term effects of Covid-19, even many months later. If you are one of those people, and wish to share your experience, let us know, and your story can be told in our Living with long Covid series. You are not alone. E-mail your stories to zakiyah.ebrahim@24.com

*For more Covid-19 research, science and news, click here. You can also sign up for our Daily Dose newsletter here

READ | Living with long Covid: People tell the stories of the debilitating symptoms left in the virus' wake

READ | Living with long Covid: ‘Everything tastes bitter and smells like sweat or a fart’

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