I lost my sense of smell and taste – but for me it's permanent

A few months ago, hardly anyone knew the word ‘anosmia’. ‘Don’t you mean the condition where you can’t sleep?’, was the reply whenever I told people I had it.

Now, alongside ‘furlough’, ‘lockdown’ and ‘social distancing’, it’s something muttered almost every day as sufferers of Coronavirus factor anosmia – the loss of smell and taste – into their growing list of symptoms.

Anosmia is something I’ve had to live with for over two years. Long before the phrase ‘new normal’ became colloquial, I’d been adjusting to my personal new normal. Knowing a lot of people are suddenly experiencing smell and taste loss gives me an odd sense of belonging; people can relate, and I want to help them.

It was March 2018 when I realised something was wrong. I’d had a persistent cold for a month and was struggling. I remember going down for breakfast after putting on lipstick which should have had an unmistakable toffee scent, and saying to my mum, ‘I can’t smell.’ I ate breakfast, and realised my taste was gone, too. Mum reassured me it would come back – after all, it was just a cold.

Weeks passed. I’d go into cupboards and pick the most potent things to smell – mustard, garlic, coffee. I’d blow my nose to ‘clear the passages’ so vigorously, it bled. Eventually, I went to my GP. With his arms stretched out in exasperation, he said, ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what to say – I’ve never seen this before,’ and prescribed vitamin C.

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After six months without improvement, the GP referred me to an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT). He failed to find any polyps or obstructions – common causes of anosmia – and chalked my sensory loss up as nerve damage. It sounded ridiculous – I was a 25-year-old with a cold waiting for her senses to come back.

I asked him if it would return, and he abruptly said: ‘I’d give it a year.’ Even now, two years down the line, my doctor can’t tell me why I lost my senses. I’ve sampled tiny glimpses of smells – mostly parosmia, where they are distorted into something foul – and nothing definite.

I had no idea you could lose your smell and taste; it seemed something so deep inside me, I thought the senses were untouchable. 

It can feel incredibly isolating. Ironically, the things I struggle with most are exactly what we can’t do right now: social interactions. Turning down invitations to drinks or dinner with friends quickly became a sad second nature as I sought respite from other people enjoying smells and taste around me.

I’d run to the toilets at work to cry when my colleagues fawned over someone’s homemade cake, saying how delicious it was. I’d cry when I missed my partner but couldn’t trace his smell on any of my clothes.

Early in my diagnosis, I was alone in the kitchen with the gas on, but didn’t have a clue as the sink tap was running at the same time, so I couldn’t hear the hiss. Thankfully, a friend came into the room and dragged me out – the smell at that point was so strong, it was in the hallway. I had no idea.

This lack of safety when you have anosmia can be overwhelming. I felt I couldn’t trust myself, and have had to learn to lean on friends and family to tell me if I smell, or if the milk is weird – or if the exhaust of the car in front is really strong and not to breathe too deeply.

Anosmia can absolutely bring about depression and make you feel cut off from the world – it did for me and still some days are better than others. It’s important to remember that coronavirus-related anosmia has a high rate of recovery, so if you’re suffering now, it might not be forever.

If your smell and taste have temporarily vanished, focus on what joy your other senses can give you – I feel like the deprivation of lockdown has made the world seem brighter.

When I eat, I play with textures for sensory pleasure, mixing crisp with soft – like pomegranate seeds in hummus, or crunchy seeds on top of soft porridge.

How something looks is important, too: cuts of lime breaking up red chilli on a plate, or bright green avocado on granary bread.

For most anosmics, basic taste remains – sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami – but unfortunately, an odd anomaly of my anosmia means that I don’t have them. It makes me so, so sad and I have never found anyone else like me, which is why it stings so much. 

Anosmia has quite literally taken things from me, and I would do anything to smell my mum’s perfume – the one I used to moan was ‘too strong’ – one more time. Yet it has helped me forge closer relationships than I thought possible. The bond I have found with my boyfriend is so special that when I do catch a trail of scent around him, it’s magical.

Everyone’s journey with anosmia is different, and there is no knowing if one person’s recovery will mirror your own. Add in lockdown, and what we are going through right now requires courage. 

If your smell and taste are absent, know that you are not alone, either in suffering or in recovery. Even on our worst days, we are all still carrying on, patiently waiting out the storm until our next good ‘new normal’ day arrive.

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