Covid-19: My Sense of Smell Has Permanently Changed
I may have had Coronavirus — but without an antibody test being publicly available in the UK back then, nor now — I won’t know for sure.
2020 — was a cataclysmic year for almost all of us. My mum contracted Covid-19 in hospital and survived — which is miraculous given her age and existing health conditions (If you’re interested, her continuing health she puts down to fruit, vegetables, lots of lemon and ginger tea, using tea tree-based soap for washing her hands. Please always consult a doctor!)
I still don’t know if I contracted it — from my Mum no less, or if she got it from me — but what I do know is that something seems to have changed permanently.
My sense of smell has changed
Right now, I still have a sense of smell, but it has altered the depth of scents and without a better adjective, their notes and timbres (isn’t it funny how we equate music and smell?). I can’t fully enjoy the plethora of scents from flowers, cut grass or really, most food at the moment.
Thankfully, fruit and veg is still discernible — however the taste of apples, strangely, is much weaker than what I am used to. Barely any sweetness, no tang in the bite — all water and skin.
Thankfully, “organic” smells seems to be coming back into my palette; and not fast enough to be honest!
Perfume, detergents and cleaning sprays are now entertaining bottles — they all smell the same —like a sort of mild bleach. I weirdly miss the full range of smells from rarebit, fresh bread and their brethren: pizza, toast and grilled teacakes with hot butter. They smell off to me now.
I can’t be around the these foods for more than a few seconds. Almost all cooked food, prepped food, microwaved food and the mixed up whiffs of other people’s lunches — everything has either the strong or weak scent of that fishy, plastic-esque malt emanating from a box of Vitamin B tablets, and yeast.
Sometimes it makes me want to wretch. All of this is deeply ironic and a tad painful, given that I spent most of my childhood and adolescence with some form of eating disorder — and after that, my career choice was one in the technology of simulating reality digitally. At least I had a good 10 years or so to enjoy food…
What is Parosmia?
Parosmia. This sudden transformation in olfactory perception is called parosmia — a type of dysosmia, and a word I was not aware of until recently.
It’s been on and off like this since last April.
In what feels like lifetimes that have passed since then, at the time the idea was simplistic, but plausible: I’d been messing about essential oils a bit too much. Nonetheless, the list of Covid-19 symptoms from UK Government back then had only been noted as anosmia, or the total loss of smell, not the notable change of it.
By the end of May last year, the ‘normal’ scent world started to slowly come back.
We’re now almost 12 months later — since then, I became a Support Worker in a local care home. I was new into the job, and the weird, olfactory phantasmagoria remained without any other symptoms. And, more crucially — I had tested negative for Covid.
And again, and again — I tested negative for Coronavirus. Cool right? Sounds like an all clear, however with lingering symptoms and still no NHS-verified antibody tests being readily available in the UK, I won’t really ever know for sure. Unless I pay for a private test, the full efficacy of which haven’t been determined or approved for mass use in the UK:
I think back to wondering if I should have taken my symptoms more seriously at the time.
Cough, splutter, cough. A sore throat that lasted for a few days.
I was tired, but nothing to write home about. A cold pretending to be the flu. Everything happened at once as usual; least of all thanks to a signature, appalling sense of timing. In a cliched experience that rings true here — the notion of ‘all-at-once’, when recalled, now feels like a nightmarish, slow-motion snowball hurtling towards me that I felt completely muted and unable to stop from happening at the time.
Firstly, my Mum’s care needs dramatically increased for months, but it came to head this month and so she was admitted to hospital. So, I needed to accept that my life was changing again, too. I went about processing that as quickly as possible, to come up with a plan of action.
The answer was to go looking for new, greener pastures. I needed the flexibility and a non-prejudicial working culture to be a carer; naively I was thinking hey, how easy it would be, thanks to my sense of work ethic and track record! to do something new and risk the stability. I was being offered non-exec positions, co-founder status and even an extra guest lecturing job at a local university.
There were assurances of from all kinds of high-flown characters that such a landing would be smooth, and there would be work, and life-changing opportunities.
So, coughing still, I jumped ships. Easy peasy.
As I say, the timing was awful: I quit my job and a large portion of my lifestyle in the middle February, a couple of weeks before the UK’s belated and quite bloated (in terms of the justification of the belatedness) lockdown on 27th March.
But I’d made a decision to fly off. Looking back, it was a thoroughly stupid one. At the time, this metaphorical plane of my life was rocking violently, but it wasn’t unliveable — there were ways and means of surviving the work life I had without having to throw in the towel. It usually meant just working harder, longer; but given that no-one else in the family was around (nor prepared to be around which remains the case), I never had the luxury of borrowed or leveraged time, and so something had to give.
I started wheezing and coughing again when waking up in the morning, just like I did when I was a little kid. But not for longer than about 2–3 minutes.
It’s a cold ffs. Woman-up.
Hastily, I left what was seen to be a cosy job working in the UK with a Californian tech company, in an industry sector I love, with only my ill-thought out potential ahead. Writing my notice letter, I fervently packed up. In parallel, my fatigue was getting worse but had chalked this down to my body reacting to making all of these environmental changes.
Cough, cough splutter, cough.
I wondered if… could it be this virus everyone’s talking about?
“No, come on. That’s way more drastic than a little sniffle. Nah, I’ve not been abroad since January. Meh. I’ll ring the doctor about it at some point, if it gets worse,” I thought, gleefully packing up my portfolio and desk ornaments for the next adventure.
A short chest infection out of nowhere.
Then an eye infection out of nowhere.
“Bit run down, probably,” I said to my worried husband, and continued on with my usual daily (and weekend, to be fair) routine of applying for contracts and pitching for freelance work, then going to visit my Mum during the allotted hours in hospital.
Time melted over the few weeks and I would forget what day it was.
An overstretch from yoga would suddenly last for days and days, rather than an hour or two the next morning. I put it down to stress and poor asana form, and so resolved to get more sleep, go slow, drink far less coffee and much more water. You know, the usual bull we tell ourselves when we’re clearly flagging.
Thinking back, I should have taken these symptoms more seriously, but I had too much going on at the time to care.
The exhaustion got worse. Without sounding like some sort of intense sloth, the energy to get out of bed in the morning daily was frightful — there were times when I couldn’t open my eyes and I felt like I was trapped between knowing I was conscious and needed to wake up, panicking and struggling to be awake — forcing myself to push my eyes and mouth open, but my brain was nailed down as if my thoughts were trapped in my face; the duvet too heavy, my limbs like rocks.
Nah, all fine. As usual I didn’t think a little off-colour sleep paralysis was anything to be worried about…
C’mon Jane, you’re being lazy, get the f*** out of bed. You need to go and see your Mum in hospital.
I’d get out of bed slowly — it took a good 30 minutes or so to wake up fully. Everything ached and it restricted how far I could stretch without causing some serious pain — as if I’d been doing weights for hours the previous day.
It took 45 minutes to walk just one kilometre. No migraines so far for the year, but definitely a few headaches after any normal physical activity.
And honestly I was just blaming myself for making my muscles hurt, and thought my sense of smell might have been something up with my tastebuds. Yeah, not the most medical diagnosis.
Then it was confirmed that my Mum had contracted Covid-19 while in hospital.
Everything suddenly moved super fast and slow again. This was no joke — at the time, this was advertised on the news as a highly a fatal disease, the true survival rates of which following contraction, were not known yet.
The hospital only told me about her diagnosis when I called them.
At this point, the UK had not gone into any sort of lockdown, no-one was being asked to wear masks prior but there was already a high awareness of the fatality of the disease and rumours of an existing death toll before the Government started counting — and yet, there were no guidelines around the Coronavirus, or indeed any pandemic preventative measures.
And the Coronavirus narrative began to unfold.
Did I give my Mum Coronavirus without realising I had it? Did she give it to me while I visited her?
A week later — the UK went into lockdown.
By the end of March, I had asked the craftier sewist friends of mine to help me make some masks to wear.
At the same time work-wise, projects were drying up — or ghosted.
Interviews fell through as people were already being made redundant — some fell through on me, on the very phone call during the interview as word came through about the virus. Others sold me really bad stories to try and get me to work for free with endless promises of nothing. (Don’t lament, this is par for the course in freelancing and it still sucks).
Weary. Hurts to walk in the morning. But at least the cough’s gone.
I was forcibly stopped from seeing my Mum in hospital, and relied on daily phone calls.
The month and days congealed into a mass of what-will-happen-next — but my symptoms — the cough, the smells, the aches — all literally dried up.
Meanwhile, my Mum was battling away while 3 people in the hospital she was in — had already died with the Coronavirus.
One day I thought: f**k it. I’m going in. What are they going to do, arrest me for being a carer? I’ve not been tested, there are no tests, and any symptoms I did have are gone.
I walked through an empty hospital, got as far as the ward, before a confused nurse turned around and said: “just drop her things on the floor. We’ll take them to her.”
The floor looked filthy.
I was asked to leave the hospital.
“Great news Jane — your Mum is being released from hospital today!”
Everyone says it, but so much has changed since then.
If you’d asked me a year ago: did you ever imagine that your Mum would be an active part of an incredible international research study with Oxford University to help people survive?
Did you ever think that you might have a permanently changed sense of smell which might never come back, but no-one really knows much more than that?
The world is in an infinitely more alien place than it ever was. Carers — somehow — are not afforded the respect they deserve, but flexible working needs have come to the fore and become a priority in what was probably, the worst possible way.
The pervasiveness of online duality and political narrative have begun to feel so real, that people walk out of their quarantines and take extreme action. The way we feel about humanitarian and economic actions have gone far beyond anything that we can ever feel we can switch off from.
And to reiterate — carers: from primary carers who work as professionals, unpaid carers who have no choice but to look after their family or friends — somehow, are still not afforded the respect and allowances that they deserve.
But there are ways that we can help carers, care about carers, or recognise and help carers in a practical way that is not a glib clap on a Thursday night to look good in front of the neighbours. There’s always room for improvement in this world of infinite possibilities.
At least my Mum is faring a bit better than last year.
Oh, and a few weeks ago, I was finally able to smell pizza fully again.