No flavours, odours, fragrances: What it’s like to live in a world without smell
Divya Jakhar, 32, distinctly remembers the last time she ate a packet of flavoured chips. It was on November 2, around noon. She didn’t enjoy the chips as much as she usually did.
“I could taste the saltiness but there was absolutely no flavour. I ate chip after chip, but there was nothing,” she says. She realised it was loss of smell causing this strangeness, and that was her first inkling that she might have Covid-19.
She sniffed at lemons and perfumes around the house; both had lost their fragrance. “It was strange and scary,” Jakhar says.
Over the next three months, the Gurgaon-based apparel designer would slowly get her sense of smell back (though she still can’t smell odours), but at the time she didn’t know if she ever would. “I was so scared and overwhelmed, I would break down at least once a day,” she says.
About 85% of patients with coronavirus experience partial or complete loss of smell, a condition called anosmia. “Hypotheses suggest this is because the virus enters the body through the ACE2 receptors present in the nasal mucosa, causing modifications in the olfactory neural fibres, which leads to anosmia,” says Dr Harish Chafle, a consultant intensivist and chest physician.
Jakhar tested positive two days after her last packet of chips, on November 4. She tested negative a week later. Her only other symptom during this time was a mild cough.
In an unexpected effect, though, her anosmia left her feeling disconnected with her body. She couldn’t smell odours or toothpaste or soap, couldn’t tell if her shampoo had lathered or she’d used the right amount of perfume.
As someone who loves food, Jakhar also hated not being able to taste what she was eating. It affected her appetite and mealtimes went from being something she looked forward to, to a chore she undertook just to ease the hunger pangs.
Her sense of smell, when it did begin to return, came back in tantalising wisps. On November 6, Jakhar got a whiff of an aroma from the cloves in her kadha, a spice-infused homemade remedy effective in soothing sore throats. The fragrance lingered for a second, then was gone again.
Gradually, as the anosmia faded, fragrances and then flavours returned.
When she could finally taste, it was a mango pickle that first registered. She added it to every meal just to have some flavour while eating. “And I don’t even like pickle,” she says.
By early February, Jakhar had regained her ability to smell and taste most things, but she still can’t smell bad odours, like rotting food or stinky socks. “Smells keep us safe because they tell you if something is fresh or stale or if there is a toxic substance in your vicinity,” she says. “Without this ability, I still feel a little unsafe.”
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