Philly’s coronavirus response

Learning to cook, shop, and live again after COVID wrecked my sense of smell

Parosmia has taught me to not take anything for granted.

Happily, avocado toast is one of the things Sakeenah Benjamin can still enjoy

Happily, avocado toast is one of the things Sakeenah Benjamin can still enjoy

Courtesy Sakeenah Benjamin
Processed With Darkroom

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It has been almost six months since I’ve felt completely normal.

Like many people, my life was uprooted when the pandemic hit. I transitioned to working from home and tried to make each day feel different than the last. I contracted COVID-19 in late August. My case was mild, even though I have asthma, which put me at high risk. Symptoms like light fever, achy muscles, and loss of taste and smell stuck around a couple weeks but were gone by mid-September. I considered myself lucky. I thought I beat the disease that has killed more than half a million people across the country.

In early November, more than two months after I’d “recovered,” I realized my fight with COVID was far from over.

I planned an indoor Halloween, with a scary movie accompanied by some drinks and food. As the evening progressed, I couldn’t pinpoint why both the fries and the wine I served had a stale taste and putrid smell. I brushed it off — the fries were cooked too long, or the wine just wasn’t what I was in the mood for, I thought. Yet, in the days that followed, almost everything tasted horrible. I noticed a change in eggs, citrus, meats, even my toothpaste. Chicken, whether fried or baked, tasted rancid or like burning chemicals. Onion and garlic were hard to consume and didn’t have that savory punch. Coffee didn’t agree with me and carried an awful burnt taste. Things I had once enjoyed suddenly became unpleasurable.

After a spiraling Google search that went from “weird smell and taste after COVID” to “do I have COVID again?” to “COVID long-term symptoms,” I stumbled on a Facebook group. There I found over a thousand people from the U.S. and U.K. experiencing the same symptoms as me.

That disturbing taste and smell I’ve experienced since Halloween has a name attached to it: parosmia. British nonprofit AbScent describes it as a distortion in the sense of smell. For me, parosmia is like living in a world where you know there’s something there for your senses to experience, but your brain can’t seem to identify what that something is.

Not using any onion or garlic helps make meals palatable — I use cayenne pepper for flavor

Not using any onion or garlic helps make meals palatable — I use cayenne pepper for flavor

Sakeenah Benjamin

Parosmia most commonly occurs when the sense of smell has been lost following a virus like the common cold, according to Fifth Sense, another British olfactory loss nonprofit, although it can also occur as a result of head injury, exposure to toxins, diseases of the nervous system and sinus problems.

When I came down with COVID last summer, there was no warning these lingering symptoms would haunt me — or that they even existed. And I had that short period between September and October where I’d begun to feel like myself again. More than three-quarters of COVID patients in a recent study reported a return to “very good” or “good” sense of smell after one month, according to the American Journal of Otolaryngology, and nearly 85% reported a return to “very good” or “good” taste.

During the joyful, short period when my muted senses returned, I relished intensely savory dishes like chicken parm, lamb chops, and roasted garlic alfredo. I don’t have that luxury anymore.

Now when I’m craving a delicious meal, I have to work around my recipe and alter it to my sensitive senses. Parosmia also affects me when I’m in public places with overpowering scents, like supermarkets and clothing stores. Sometimes it’s dreadful, but I make it through.

Dealing with parosmia has not been easy. It’s hard to talk about with family and friends. My loved ones frequently ask if the long-hauler symptoms have subsided, and answering them, again and again, makes me feel like I have a long road ahead of me. I find suggestions in online groups, and have a friend who’s experiencing parosmia, too. We’ve helped recommend foods, spices, and even candles that are tolerable. And I’ve learned that smell training works! Sniffing familiar odors through the day like lavender and peach has brought me a bit of solace.

Lots of herbs and veggies have become mainstays

Lots of herbs and veggies have become mainstays

My diet has made a complete turnaround over the past six months. No more fries. I eat tons of veggies, salmon, vegan chicken and eggs. Spices in my cabinet aren’t used much nowadays, but I’m optimistic that I will eventually recover and be myself again.

The whole experience has taught me to not take even the smallest of things for granted. Looking back at last March, I hadn’t the slightest idea my life would change so drastically. Many lives have been changed because of COVID, whether you had it or not. There is still so much we have yet to know about this virus.

My goal has always been to make each day different than the last, and parosmia has been a great teacher at doing just that.