How to cope (and what to eat) when you have lost your sense of smell and taste because of coronavirus

Eight days ago I lost the ability to taste and smell - but Public Health England is yet to release information relating it to coronavirus

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Pip Sloan
It's been nine days since I lost my sense of taste and smell, and it's starting to take its toll

We’re all well aware of the recognised symptoms of Covid-19 by now; a fever, a dry cough, shortness of breath and aching, with severe symptoms including pneumonia, diarrhoea, vomiting and, as some have reported, the feeling of drowning. What Public Health England is yet to recognise, though, is the total loss of sense of smell and taste, even if the person has no other symptoms. This is exactly what I’ve been experiencing for the last nine days, in no way as debilitating as what others have experienced - but there’s a catch. I’m a food writer and editor, and now can’t taste a thing. 

It was last Sunday morning, 11am, mid-chew of my slice of toast with butter and Marmite that I realised something was wrong. I tried chewing slower, chewing longer, having a large gulp of tea and, finally, taking a big spoonful from the jar and sucking on it.

Nothing. Nada. Zilch. At first I put it down to the unknown quantity of Campari gin and tonics consumed the night before (what else is one meant to do right now?), but soon it became apparent that I simply wasn’t smelling or tasting anything. 

Numerous Google searches and panicked calls to my boyfriend (a medical student in his final year) later and I was convinced: it was cancer (or something equally serious). Anosmia is, according to NHS England, usually caused by a sinus infection, the flu, an allergy, a growth in the nose or nasal polyps or a severe head injury.

As I was otherwise feeling fit and healthy, with no head injuries to date, I was sent into panic mode. Not least because I’d made a chickpea, ham hock and smoked garlic stew for dinner and may as well have been eating porridge. 

Of course, the thought of coronavirus had entered my mind, but as there was nothing on the NHS website regarding sense of smell or taste, I assumed I was safe; I hadn’t had a temperature, shortness of bread or even a mild cough. 

For the next few days I decided to test myself; perhaps if I pushed the boundaries, my taste buds and nose would kick back into gear. I started with a large slice of raw ginger, then onto a chunk of raw onion. Raw garlic, ketchup and harissa paste followed. Other than the mild sensation of spice and sourness, nothing. The experiment concluded with a Real McCoys salt and vinegar crisp, dipped into English mustard. That’s it, I thought, my dreams of being a successful cookbook author are over. 

Then, idly typing the words ‘loss of smell and taste coronavirus’ for the umpteenth time, I was at last given my answer. Articles on every major news site finally confirmed that not only was anosmia and hyposmia being reported by those who have tested positive, but that there were increasing reports of anosmia in younger people displaying no other symptoms. As the symptom is not severe or dangerous, those who have it have little or no chance of being tested for it, and therefore it is not currently recognised by Public Health England as a symptom.

Upon reading this, I contacted professor Claire Hopkins, consultant ENT surgeon and president of the British Rhinological Society; in part to gather more information about the symptom, but mostly to ask her whether there was a chance this might permanently affect my sense of taste. Despite her out of office reply detailing that she is currently suspending her private practice to work at the NHS at Guy’s and St Thomas’s she replied within hours with some extremely helpful information. 

“ENT surgeons across the globe have shared reports that they have seen a peak in patients reporting anosmia in the last month, and we now believe this is related to COVID-19 infection,” She writes. “Many infected patients do not have any other symptoms, and therefore do not meet the criteria for testing. While this may be caused by other viruses, we think that it is reasonable to assume that COVID-19 is the cause.” 

She advises me to follow the government guidelines on self-isolating - which, due to my ability to work from home, I have been doing incidentally, anyway - and to avoid visiting the GP surgery or hospital. Oral steroids are not advised, as it is unclear as to whether steroids may make the effects of COVID-19 worse, and nasal steroids are unlikely to have any effect.

There is good news, though. She assures me that in Italy, colleagues of hers are reporting encouraging rates of recovery, with many patients reporting a return of their sense of smell and taste within seven to 14 days. 

So what can I do until then? Smell training can apparently be beneficial - she recommends using essential oils, but “anything with a strong smell will do!”. So it’s back to the taste tests, for me. Strong curries and plenty of chilli flakes are proving a good way of injecting some interest into my meals, as is salt - though I am beginning to worry a little about my sodium intake. Occasionally I’ll get a whiff of my hand soap, or a waft of frying onions will seep into my nasal passage, and I’m sent into a frenzy, frantically sniffing the air around me like a basset hound. 

These moments give me hope, because otherwise, I’m bereft of one of my main pleasures. I long for the taste of citrus, or the warming, mouth-coating savouriness of onions, garlic, mushrooms and butter. I try and will my taste buds into recognising the flavours of tomatoes and anchovies (anchovy actually works quite well, due to the saltiness), and keep a jar of mustard by my desk for the occasional finger dip to the tip of my tongue.

It’s not the end of the world, but as I was looking forward to using my time at home to bake fresh bread, cakes, chutneys, fragrant spiced stews and curries, it’s more than a little disheartening. Meals are the main source of breaks in our day at the moment, and the inability to make something that will console me, make me want to pause and savour, leave me thinking about what I’ll make for my next meal - it’s zapped me of positivity. 

But, to anyone else experiencing the strange, alienating sensation of losing all sense of taste and smell; you are not alone. Others are experiencing the same, and in time, we’ll all pull through. Also, beer suddenly tastes great. 

Professor Hopkins has created an anonymous online survey for anyone suffering from a sudden loss of taste or smell; please do fill it out here if you are displaying such symptoms, as it will help to identify how widespread the symptom is, informing Public Health England of the need to recognise this as a symptom.