Michele Miller of Bayside, NY, was infected with the coronavirus in March and has not smelled anything since. Recently, her husband and daughter stormed her home and said the kitchen was filling up with gas.
She had no idea. “It’s one thing not to smell and taste, but that is survival,” Ms. Miller said.
People are constantly scanning their surroundings for smells that signal change and possible damage, although the process is not always aware of it, said Dr. Dalton of the Monell Chemical Senses Center.
Smell makes the brain aware of everyday things, like dirty clothes, and things that are risky, such as spoiled food. Without this kind of recognition, “people worry about things,” said Dr. Dalton.
Worse still, some Covid-19 survivors are plagued by phantom odors that are unpleasant and often harmful, such as the smell of burning plastic, ammonia, or feces, a distortion called parosmia.
Eric Reynolds, a 51-year-old probation officer in Santa Maria, California, lost his sense of smell when he signed Covid-19 in April. Now, he said, he often smells bad smells that he knows don’t exist. Diet drinks taste like dirt; Soap and detergent smell like standing water or ammonia.
“I can’t do the dishes, it makes me choke,” said Mr. Reynolds. He is also haunted by phantom scents of corn chips and what he calls the “old lady’s perfume scent”.
It’s not uncommon for patients like him to develop food intolerances due to their distorted perceptions, said Dr. Evan R. Reiter, medical director of the Smell and Taste Center at Virginia Commonwealth University, who has followed the recovery of approximately 2,000 Covid-19 patients who have lost their sense of smell.