Monday, January 11, 2021

Weird COVID-19 phantom smells (?)

I'm not someone possessed of a keen sense of smell, but I'm pleased to have it as a very crude means of determining whether or not I have caught COVID-19 (I have not yet, so far as I know.) The experience of those with COVID-19 related anosmia has been well-documented, but this New York Times article was fascinating: 
...Smell alerts the brain to the mundane, like dirty clothes, and the risky, like spoiled food. Without this form of detection, “people get anxious about things,” Dr. Dalton said.

Even worse, some Covid-19 survivors are tormented by phantom odors that are unpleasant and often noxious, like the smells of burning plastic, ammonia or feces, a distortion called parosmia.

Eric Reynolds, a 51-year-old probation officer in Santa Maria, Calif., lost his sense of smell when he contracted Covid-19 in April. Now, he said, he often perceives foul odors that he knows don’t exist. Diet drinks taste like dirt; soap and laundry detergent smell like stagnant water or ammonia.

“I can’t do dishes, it makes me gag,” Mr. Reynolds said. He’s also haunted by phantom smells of corn chips and a scent he calls “old lady perfume smell.”

Weird/fascinating how smell is related to our nervous system, and how the virus has altered it for some. I imagine we'll eventually get a handle on this, but it won't come soon enough... 

I wonder what the corn chips thing is about - olfactory nerve phantom pain? 


  1. More than once during my PhD when I had flu but was still working hard in the lab, I recalled that the lab didn't smell like it should. Pentane almost didn't have any smell anymore while EA and acetone remained the same but more muted. Most interesting was diethyl ether smelling like light grass, completely unrecognizable (or rather, diagnostic of me being down with a flu!).

    I have quite a sensitive nose and I rely on smells to work safely and effectively in the lab, so having a damaged sense of smell is actually risky.

  2. I had Covid in November. Thankfully, it was a mild case. Near the end, I had probably 5 - 10 days of distorted smell (grateful that did not last for long).

    It was very bizarre - some things smelled completely normal (milk, cleaning products) but bread, coffee grounds, and several other foods only had a smell I could only liken to vinegar or ammonia (sort of a burning sensation). Weirder yet was that brewed coffee smelled and tasted nearly normal, but the grounds did not.

    I have a keen sense of smell, which is annoying at times because it makes me a picky eater (can't get close enough to sauerkraut to taste it without being completely overwhelmed by the smell, for example).

    1. Weird - one wonders if COVID is attacking specific kinds of nerve cells or something. Hope you are all right!

    2. Hi CJ,

      I'm all good now. One friend, same age as me, is a "long hauler", having had long-lasting symptoms after having had Covid in the spring. So I'm grateful that I had a mild case with the smell issue clearing up fairly quickly.

  3. "Diet drinks taste like dirt; soap and laundry detergent smell like stagnant water or ammonia." Funny, those are tastes/smells that I sometimes associate with those things. But to me it's just one component of the overall flavour/scent. Stevia-based drinks always tasted like dirt to me (which is why I avoid them) but I never thought it odd. Maybe certain smells are getting knocked out and only leaving a few unpleasant components that are normally masked? Certain molecules getting attenuated by membranes or something before they hit the receptors but more dominant but less stimulating ones getting through? Or some transient nerve damage? Who knows.


looks like Blogger doesn't work with anonymous comments from Chrome browsers at the moment - works in Microsoft Edge, or from Chrome with a Blogger account - sorry! CJ 3/21/20