Garbage Candy & Cigarette Coffee: COVID Can Alter Sense of Smell, Taste Months Later

The condition called parosmia affects up to 10% of people who get COVID-19, researchers say

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Imagine taking a bite of your favorite candy only to taste garbage. The rich, bold flavor of coffee is replaced with cigarette smoke. One woman from the D.C. area says that's what she is experiencing months after having COVID-19.

Parosmia is the term for this bizarre symptom of long haul COVID. It's a condition in which your sense of smell is distorted, which also impacts taste. Doctors say it affects up to 10% of people who contract the virus.

"Things then started tasting terrible … like rotting garbage. It was awful," Colleen Herrmann said.

Herrmann said she had a mild case of COVID in February. When the infection cleared, she lost her sense of taste and smell. But when her taste returned, things were out of whack.

Her favorite foods suddenly took on a different taste.

"I really love, like, red peppers, green peppers, yellow peppers and they taste somewhere, like, a mixed wet dog and dirty socks," she said. "I opened my absolute favorite wine and I tasted it and it tasted like grass."

Source: NBC
Amy O'Kruk/NBC


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Searching for clues, the mother from South Riding, Virginia, found a support group on Facebook with stories from thousands of others just like her.

"And there are people in that group who have had to go to the hospital and [get], you know, feeding tubes because they cannot eat because their taste is so distorted. It can be really rough," Hermann said.

There’s no cure or treatment for parosmia.

"It's really lonely and isolating and frustrating because people don't understand the impact of it," said Dr. Danielle Reed, with the world-renowned Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.

Reed is studying the phenomenon, but said scientists still don’t know what causes it.

"It's like the switch goes off with smell. And then when the switch starts to come back on and people start to recover, it doesn't come back correctly," Reed said.

No one can say exactly how long the symptoms will last, but it appears the condition is temporary.

"There is hope. A lot of people get better and they get back to where they were before," Reed said.

Reed said most people fully recover within a year.

Source: Danielle R. Reed, Associate Director, Monell Chemical Senses Center
Amy O'Kruk/NBC

Herrmann said she's hopeful things will return to normal soon so she can get back to enjoying her favorite foods and going out to dinner without being tormented by her taste buds.

"It's been seven months for me and that's kind of a long time. You kind of, you know, kind of over it by now, at least mentally ... But here we are," she said.

Herrmann said she wanted to share her story so others know they’re not alone as researchers get to the root of this unusual side effect.

Coffee, chocolate, eggs and meat are all common triggers for people with parosmia, researchers said.

But simple things like bread and water can even be problematic for some.

There's no medication to treat it, but some doctors recommend smell therapy in which the patient smells different essential oils to try and trigger damaged nerves in their nose and retrain the brain.

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