COVID-19 Took My Sense of Smell Nearly a Year Ago

An illustration of a nose with a line over it.
Mirrorpix / Getty / The Atlantic

Last March, I contracted COVID-19. Like many people, I lost my sense of smell. I assumed at the time that it would return reasonably quickly. But nearly a year later, it has not.

I do not feel debilitated the way I would if I had lost my sight or my hearing. But the absence nags at me nonetheless and has, if anything, become more difficult to accept over time. Memory, emotion, and intuition all have a direct line to the sense of smell. Without it, the world is a very different place.

I caught COVID-19 earlier than most Americans. My wife is a doctor in Manhattan and ran her hospital’s newly established COVID-19 ICU in early March, when the novelty of the disease made everything risky.

Our 18-month-old daughter was the first to show signs of a fever. Her twin sister and my wife got fevers a day or two after that. They were listless, sweaty. I prayed the way everyone does in such a situation. I offered myself to God in a trade. I tried, in my prayers, to appeal to reason. People needed my wife. The COVID-19 floor at her hospital soon became every floor, as more and more people died. Most urgent, our kids needed her.

Months earlier, we had taken to diffusing lavender oil in the girls’ bedroom to help them get to sleep. When COVID-19 entered our home, I would open the bottle of lavender essential oil every time I went in to check on the girls. I’d sniff the oil, smell its tell-tale aroma of well-being, and realize that my offer to God remained declined.

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We were lucky. No one had to go to the hospital. But then, just as my wife and daughters were getting better, COVID-19 finally came for me. For the next three weeks, I barely had the energy to stand for more than a few minutes. A sore throat was soon followed by night sweats, which were soon followed by an earache, which was soon followed by a productive cough, which was soon followed by a dry cough, which was soon followed by the loss of my sense of smell.

Before COVID-19, I had an unusually acute sense of smell. Perfume, cut grass, even the soap on someone’s skin could make my eyes run. I could tell if a specific person had recently been in a room. I never put this quirk to good use by becoming a sommelier or snouting out wild truffles. I thought of my sense of smell, like any other oversensitivity, as more of a nuisance than a talent.

Losing my sense of smell was disorienting, though not unbearable at first. I would test myself with a gee-whiz curiosity at the uncanniness. Lavender oil: nope. Cinnamon: nope. Coffee: nope. Diaper pail: nope.

As the months dragged on, though, what I had lost became more apparent. A healthy human nose is extremely sensitive to the sulfurous compound mercaptan, which is found in the effluvia of the mouth, the sweat glands, and the anus. Unable to smell them myself, my breath and body odor became a strand of toilet paper on the back of my shoe.

Mercaptan is also added to otherwise odorless cooking gas for safety. Unable to smell it, I was left looking down at the stove in creeping terror, wondering how long the dial for the front burner had been turned to nine without the flame lit.

Then, one afternoon in early August, my wife and I were enjoying lunch on an outdoor patio that a restaurant had hastily constructed in a parking space. As we discussed the menu, the pungent, crowd-clearing stench of road tar swept over us. I know this because my wife’s senses of smell and taste had bounced back rather quickly. I, though, was overwhelmed by the smell of tempera paint.

Suddenly, the smell of tempera paint became smell itself; the simple awareness that a smell was there. I had my sense of smell back, but in black and white. And the antipodes of this gray scale were nothingness on one side, and shades of tempera paint on the other.

Some smells, like mercaptan, remain dangerously invisible to me. But for those things that I can smell, everything has the odor of tempera paint—with a few nuances. Something can smell noxious or mildly pleasant. It can come on strongly or be faint. It can linger or be fleeting. Lavender oil, for example: rather pleasant, somewhat strong, a bit lingering. Cinnamon: pleasant, rather faint, quickly fleeting. Coffee: a bit noxious, very strong, quite lingering. Diaper pail: a bit pleasant (I know!), rather strong, somewhat lingering.

Many people with COVID-19 lose both taste and smell. When I couldn’t smell anything at all, I noticed little difference in how foods tasted, except for a remarkable tolerance for spicy food. Only when my sense of smell returned in the form of tempera paint did the interplay between the mouth and the nose become obvious. Drinking Coca-Cola was like sipping fizzy tempera paint, and eating Doritos was like snacking on tempera-paint chips. Citrus fruits tasted like tempera paint mixed with vinegar. Food had always been an easy comfort. Now every time I pick up something I haven’t eaten recently, I find myself getting the same jolt of anxiety that lab rats must feel when their food buttons are programmed to give them random electric shocks.

Anosmia, the complete loss of smell, and parosmia, distortions in the sense of smell, feature in approximately half of symptomatic COVID-19 cases, and they are two of the symptoms of the disease shown to persist. The precise reasons for this are still not understood, though the best candidates are nerve and neurological damage of varying severities.

Adding to the mystery, I’ve more recently gotten a few whiffs of recognizable smells that come and go as quickly as a familiar face in a crowd. When changing one particularly well-filled diaper in the middle of the night, my nose got a hot blast of the unmistakable smell in front of me. But then it vanished. Over Thanksgiving, a similarly fleeting scent of fresh sage brushed up against my nose. On another occasion, I noticed for a happy moment the aroma of pizza baking in the oven.

Those short bolts of something’s true odor hit me like the oversaturated Technicolor of Munchkinland. Everything seemed alive. I felt so suddenly immersed in the world that I realized how much I had been removed from it.

Each moment, though, was brief enough to make me wonder whether I was just hallucinating from the power of suggestion. Doctors call such hallucinations phantosmia. I had read about how they often accompany parosmia, and knowing that they happen, I was left by these fleeting scents with the same dislocation that you feel when you’re not sure if an otherwise clear memory might have actually been a dream.

Studies have shown that a loss or impairment of smell significantly correlates with depression, and it is easy to see why. Without smell, I did not just lose my appreciation for a detail about the world. Life itself assumed something closer to the mediated, low-stakes cast of a Zoom call.

Seeing the ocean this past fall lost some of its awe without the sea breeze in my nostrils. Winter has been less cozy and the air somehow colder without the scent of hanging smoke from fireplaces. The girls’ bedroom just feels less like bedtime without its nightly misting of lavender oil.

No one really knows how long COVID-related parosmia may last. Whatever my prognosis, I worry that my daughters are enduring their own bouts of parosmia. In the few weeks after they recovered from their fevers, they both lost their hair, which is yet another of COVID-19’s random assortment of bizarre symptoms, particularly for children. One daughter briefly developed male-pattern baldness, which gave her more than a passing resemblance to Ben Franklin. I have no real way of knowing whether or how their senses of smell were also affected. I doubt even they would know. Everything is the way it has always been when you’re a toddler.

In December, I installed box gardens to prevent my kids from climbing on the windowsills. The only plants at our garden store that fit the size, durability, and nontoxicity requirements of a children’s room were lavender bushes. After setting the little shrubs, which had not yet bloomed, in place and dumping a few bags of potting soil around them, the most beautiful waft of lavender washed over me. It was fresh and sweet and loamy, all in perfect harmony.

As I took it in, I noticed that the smell was persisting. There it was; that aroma of well-being that I had come to despise back in March, when God was so callously declining my offer for a trade.

The fragrance was more vibrant and lingered far longer than any of the other fleeting smells I had enjoyed until then. I became giddy at the thought that my bout of parosmia had finally come to an end. I went to get my wife from the living room. Wide-eyed with delight, I brought her into the girls’ room to take it in for herself. Wasn’t it incredible?

She took a few sniffs before looking over at the odor-blind father of her children. Her eyes were loving, verging on patronizing. I knew then that I had imagined it. “It smells like,” she said, “dirt.”