I got COVID-19 just over a month ago, standing outside in a field with no mask on. At least eight other people were infected at the same family gathering. My husband and two sons were fortunate not to be included in that number. They spent most of their time in a different part of the field, something my husband now likes to joke about. Who would've thought the kids would be safer playing with rusty farm equipment in a patch of fire-ant hills than they would've been next to their mom? It was true in this instance. I got the virus; they did not. Overall, I've been lucky — my symptoms were mild, and I developed no complications. Nevertheless, a month later, the coronavirus continues to affect my sensory perception and the fullness of that experience.
After testing positive, I spent more than a week isolated from my family in the master bedroom of my house. My husband left a tray of food outside my door at mealtimes like an old-timey jailer, and I ate cross-legged on the floor so I wouldn't get crumbs in my bed. I watched my kids play outside through the bedroom window, FaceTimed with them after dinner, and told them goodnight through Alexa before bed. I read and I wrote. I learned about my illness, and I took daily phone calls from the county health department to monitor my condition. I watched episodes of The Home Edit, because watching someone organize a pantry is oddly soothing when your personal health is beyond your control. I wondered about the unsettling feeling in my chest and waited for Amazon to deliver the pulse oximeter that would monitor my blood oxygen level.
Some days, I felt like I was getting better. Other days, I felt inexplicably bad and wondered if the intermittent racing of my heart was anxiety or the beginning of COVID-related complications. Once, when my husband took the kids out for a walk, I masked up and snuck downstairs to put my dirty dishes in the dishwasher. By the time I made it back to my bedroom, I was so dizzy and winded that I called my doctor. It passed, and I was OK.
Then, six days after becoming symptomatic, I completely lost my sense of smell.
Then, six days after becoming symptomatic, I completely lost my sense of smell. I was wiping down my food tray with a Clorox wipe before setting it out in the hall when I realized I couldn't smell it. I felt the fumes in my nose and eyes, but I smelled nothing. I spent the next several minutes nearly huffing basic household items — mouthwash, Lysol, bleach — to no avail. My sense of smell was completely absent. When my next tray of food arrived, I was surprised to find that my sense of taste was still functional but disturbingly one-dimensional. I could perceive things as sweet, salty, bitter, or spicy, but the overall identity of the food was rendered unfamiliar in the absence of aroma. The act of chewing became monotonous, tiresome, and unsatisfying. I stopped looking forward to eating.
My isolation ended on a Friday, 10 days after my first symptoms had appeared. I'd never had a fever, and my headache and nausea were gone. The remaining evidence of my COVID-19 infection had been reduced to mild cold-like symptoms, comparable to seasonal allergies, and a respiratory malaise that made me hesitant to exert myself. That morning, I had coffee in the kitchen with my husband for the first time since my diagnosis, then watched The Simpsons on the couch with my kids before the remote-learning school day began. I was tentative, but satisfied. It was good to be back in the world. The scent of coffee was now increasingly discernible and food was beginning to taste more familiar, which suggested that my sense of smell was possibly improving.
Twenty-five days after I became symptomatic, I felt like I was well. I could jog with my husband without exhausting myself, and the fog of effortfulness had lifted. It's been a month now since I lost my sense of smell, and the progress I've made is still faint, like a word on the tip of my tongue or a fleeting image in my peripheral vision. I can catch an olfactory "glimpse" of certain categories of scent, but smells often don't linger and may disappear if I attempt to take a second whiff too soon after the first. My doctor originally suggested it might be seven to 14 days before my sense of smell would return. Now, she's saying it could take three months or more. Like everything with this virus, there's still a lot they don't know about the long-term effects.
Sense of smell originates in the olfactory nerve, also referred to as cranial nerve I. It's the first of 12 cranial nerves that originate in the brain and control major sensory and motor functions, such as sight, eye movement, hearing, and balance. The olfactory nerve sits like a shelf in the middle of the head, just behind the face, with tendrils dangling down like wind chimes. Fortunately for me, the olfactory system can regenerate when damaged, like a lizard who can regrow its tail after an unfortunate encounter with a predator.
Loss of smell is known as anosmia and occurs as the result of trauma, infection, tumors, or lesions involving the olfactory nerve. Sense of smell is known to decrease with age, along with other senses, like sight and hearing. Recent studies have identified loss of smell as an early warning sign of cognitive decline, with anosmia being a frequent precursor to Alzheimer's disease. In my case, anosmia was a direct result of COVID-19 infection and doesn't imply any impairment to cognitive function. As far as they know right now.
Before COVID, I was easily overwhelmed by unpleasant odors that my husband and sons could scarcely detect. I could smell the must on an old, wet towel in the upstairs bathroom from the foyer of my house. I could sit on the couch in my living room and smell the grass clippings rotting in the undercarriage of my lawn mower through the closed mudroom door. If I prepared and ate a meal with garlic or onions, I could smell it on my fingers for hours and on my own breath for at least a day, regardless of how much I washed my hands or brushed my teeth.
Since COVID, we've had to throw out that bathroom towel. It had gotten so hideously odiferous that my husband couldn't ignore the smell of it and the stink would no longer wash out. I can vaguely smell the grass when I cut it and the gasoline I put in the mower, but any putrid rot that might be hiding underneath the blade is masked by the pervasive blankness of what I perceive as the world's baseline scent. I smell the weak ghost of garlic now, but onions come and go. Earlier this week, my husband was crying his eyes out over the onions he was cutting. I stood directly over the pile on the chopping block and perceived nothing. Two days later, I cut some onions myself and gradually teared up. Meanwhile, the green onions I washed yesterday were completely odorless and the onion powder I put in my taco seasoning could have been salt for as much as I could smell. Consequently, onion powder and cumin were the only components I couldn't perceive in a recipe that included oregano, chili powder, garlic powder, and paprika. It makes sense, since onion and cumin bear the closest resemblance to body odor I can think of in a seasoning. I can't smell body odor either.
A study published in PLOS One identified 10 basic categories of odors. For me, "sweet" returned first, in the form of chocolate. It was followed by "lemon," which consequently includes other citrus scents like the clementine I was peeling when I realized I could smell it. "Woody or resinous" smells have returned, as in the rosemary I grow on my deck. "Fragrant" smells, such as perfume, are detectable, along with "minty" ones, which I recently smelled in my toilet-bowl cleaner. "Popcorn," surprisingly, is its own category but also encompasses nutty scents, like the peanut butter I can now smell when I spread it on sandwiches. "Fruity" smells of the noncitrus variety are ever-so-faintly present, like the blueberry tea I could once discern before even tearing the wrapper. "Chemical" smells have partially emerged; I can smell Clorox wipes again, possibly due to the artificial lemon scent added to it. Bleach, however powerful, still draws a blank for me, which is particularly sad. I've always found the undeniable clean of a bleach fog particularly satisfying after scrubbing a nasty bathroom. Of all the smells that have resurfaced, sweetness is by far the most pronounced.
The two remaining categories, "decayed" and "pungent," fall under the larger classification "sickening" smells. Oddly enough, all of the smells I cannot yet perceive could be described as decayed, pungent, or some combination of the two. Body odor, garbage, bad breath, and bathroom smells are a few of the more noticeable aromas that no longer exist in my current world. Some people have jokingly asked why I would complain about being nose-blind to undesirable smells. On the one hand, it seems to suggest I've achieved a level of utopia. On the other hand, pungent and decayed smells apparently include natural gas — which means I don't smell the sulfuric additive designed to alert me when a burner blows out on my gas stove. It also means I don't smell smoke. Well, at least not the way I remember it.
It's fall right now in North Carolina, one of the nicest, most temperate seasons to be outside in this part of the world. For the past two weekends in a row, my husband has built a campfire in the backyard and shown movies for the kids on a DIY projection screen. This activity is always immediately followed by showers and a full load of laundry to dispel the smoky stench we bring back into the house in our clothing and hair. Sometimes, the odor is so intensely baked in that I can still smell it on my pillow the next morning, even after a thorough shampoo.
Last weekend, however, I just smelled pancakes. Pancakes with syrup and a little bit of cinnamon. I could see the wood burning, watch the flames curl around the split-pine logs, and follow the plumes of smoke rising from the fire — but I only smelled pancakes. It didn't sting my eyes or make me want to step away. It was warm, sweet, and pleasant. After my husband and sons confirmed that smoke still smelled like smoke to them, I began to wonder if the sweetness of caramelizing wood was always present but was typically masked by the overwhelming acrid quality we recognize in smoke. While the underlying sweetness of burning wood was a fascinating surprise in the moment, it was also a little scary to think that I might confuse my house burning down with a surprise pancake breakfast and that my ability to perceive unpleasantness was utterly absent.
I had heard of sensory deficits in people with other illnesses. For instance, a stroke can damage parts of the brain that help process visual information, causing hemianopsia or loss of vision in half of one's visual field. In other words, patients with hemianopsia may not perceive clothing hanging on the right side of their closet or see anything written on the left side of a page, depending on how their vision is impaired. Hemianopsia may resolve as the brain repairs itself, but it can also be permanent, impeding everyday tasks like reading, walking, and driving. While I still struggle to perceive entire categories of smells, it's helpful to consider the gravity of injury to one system over the other. If I had to choose between smelling only the good half of smoke and seeing only one half of everything else, permanent loss of smell is infinitely less dire.
It makes sense that perception of pleasant smells would develop first. It comforts us, connects us to our world, and endears people to us.
In the meantime, I'm gaining a new perspective on a sense I took for granted and what it's like to be oblivious to something others cannot ignore if they try. The last time I experienced such a clean olfactory slate was probably in the womb, when the olfactory system first begins to function. We are born recognizing the smell of our mothers, which is one scent more than I could recognize for at least one full week as a fully grown woman. It makes sense that perception of pleasant smells would develop first. It comforts us, connects us to our world, and endears people to us. It also stands to reason that perception of unpleasant smells would come later. As our independence grows, it becomes increasingly necessary to protect ourselves from touching, tasting, or breathing too deeply of things that might harm us or make us sick. Much like a child too young to know better, I'm only perceiving the positive range of the spectrum, for better or worse. When presented with the same stimuli as my husband and kids around a campfire, my perception is vastly different than theirs.
In a year as tumultuous and contentious as 2020, the contrast in our perceptions is disturbingly evident from one person to the next. Two people can see and hear the same information and arrive at completely different conclusions. One sees good where the other sees garbage; one sees progress where one sees failure; one smells a pancake breakfast where the other smells a dumpster fire.
Maybe the silver lining of surviving a global contagion should be amplified recognition of the good in the world — a surge of positivity to counteract a year of relentless negatives. While I can appreciate the reassuring simplicity of that idea, I find it more productive and empowering to embrace the layered complexity of the bad that naturally accompanies the good, and all the variants of gray in between. I've spent the last month in a prevailing sweetness, utterly unable to smell my own stink — but that doesn't mean it isn't there or that people around me haven't been impacted by it. Maybe increased awareness of good and bad, positive and negative, fragrant and sickening is the silver lining of this experience. There's a devil in the details, but also joy in the journey and richness in a multidimensional reality.
As I continue to recover, I'm grateful for not having been sicker and for this odd opportunity in rediscovering the scent of the world, one category at a time. I look forward to eventually regaining the full range of my sensory perception and to appreciating the nuance between "fragrant" and "pungent." Because we need to smell the smoke if we hope to save ourselves from an approaching wildfire. To also perceive the warm scent of syrup in the midst of a raging inferno would be an added bonus — as long as we keep running to safety in the other direction.