Many young people have been unfazed in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite higher positivity rates in teenagers and young adults, hospital admissions and deaths are highest among the elderly: in the week beginning September 27th 2021, 238 deaths were recorded among those aged 85 years and over, versus 22 deaths among 15 to 44 year olds. These ratios have led to a lack of concern among young people. The UK witnessed the birth of ‘Covid parties’, events where young people purposefully socialised with infected persons to test the chickenpox strategy: catch the illness and generate antibodies with the assurance of minimal health consequences. However, what happens when unprecedented coronavirus effects begin to rear their ugly heads?
By now, most people have heard of long Covid. However, only a handful have come across long Covid parosmia. What is parosmia? Wikipedia defines it as “a dysfunctional smell detection characterized by the inability of the brain to correctly identify an odour’s ‘natural’ smell. Instead, the natural odour is usually transformed into an unpleasant aroma, typically a burned, rotting, faecal or chemical smell”. This means that innocent flavours and scents, such as mint toothpaste, become completely vile. Wikipedia also notes that “the condition was rare and not widely researched until it became relatively more widespread since 2020 as a side effect of Covid-19”. Towards the early stages of the pandemic, thousands of people suddenly found themselves unable to sit with friends and families at mealtimes, repulsed by food they once enjoyed and incapable of properly nourishing themselves – all without knowing why. Most upsettingly, people did not know how long this inexplicable condition would last.
Many reports conclude that the condition appears more prevalent in young people. Moreover, several online support groups have been set up for parosmia-sufferers, and their polls indicate that the majority of long haulers are aged between 18 to 35. At the time of writing, one of these groups has over 36,500 members and continues to grow daily. The science behind parosmia remains unclear – or at least there is little publicly-available information on it – but the emerging consensus seems to be that the rancid smells occur as a result of olfactory sensory neurons having to rewire and their supporting cells being damaged. Apart from the obvious distress that would be caused by food tasting disgusting, doctors have pointed out that there are other pressing concerns. A person suffering from parosmia (or anosmia) would struggle to detect spoilt foods, potentially resulting in food poisoning. Furthermore, parosmia patients can no longer distinguish between the signature unpleasant, burnt smell and actual smoke. This can be incredibly dangerous if, for example, a kitchen fire goes unnoticed and gets out of control. People themselves will also smell different and even one’s own bodily odours will likely be unpleasant. This can be incredibly disconcerting and upsetting, especially for parents with newborns who often bond on a sensory level with their children through smell.
One scientific paper concluded that, out of all Covid-19 patients who experience smell loss, 47% develop parosmia. There is currently no recognised treatment for parosmia. Some doctors suggest smell training to try to accelerate the recovery process. Olfactory training entails inhaling a variety of fragrances twice a day for at least four months in order to stimulate the neurons. The UK-based charity AbScent offers support in the form of general information, meal advice and management strategies. They also offer detailed information about smell training. AbScent identifies the worst trigger smells for most people as: coffee, onions, chocolate, garlic, eggs, roasting and grilling generally. However, there are countless reports of people struggling to eat fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, spices and much more. Symptoms typically decrease over time, but some patients are afflicted with the condition for well over a year. Low mood and depression are very common in people with altered smell and taste, as well as the more extreme consequence of nutritional deficits. If you are struggling with parosmia and either believe you are not receiving sufficient nutrients or need treatment for mental health, request a blood test or consultation, respectively, from your doctor who can then advise you on taking supplements and other action. Pay particular attention to this in the case of pregnancy.
Doctors do agree that connecting with others undergoing the same difficulties is very helpful. Join support groups on social media or the AbScent Network if you are struggling. Fortunately, the condition is gaining more recognition and attention with every day that goes by, including research into treatments. However, one must wonder how many young people would have approached this pandemic in the same way if they had known about these potential consequences.