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Bread And Butter: COVID-19 And Smell

Lael: The smell of a pine forest, melting butter or a favorite blanket from childhood, what happens when it's all gone? I used to think of the loss of the sense of smell as a minor inconvenience. But now, as thousands of people are experiencing it as a symptom of COVID-19, I've realized we really take our sense of smell for granted. For some, it's temporary. For others, the symptoms go on much longer. 

I spoke with my friend Lauren Guevara, who is six weeks out from her COVID infection, and still struggling with the loss of sense of smell.

Lauren: I had a fever one night along with my son, Jude, which is rare for me as an adult. And then a few days later, I completely lost my sense of smell. It's been hard, especially through the holidays. It's weird. It's a weird feeling. It's like a less layered life. 


I'm a person who loves to smell, or smells are really tied to memory and experiences. So we got a Christmas tree. We cut one down. I was excited to have the smell of a Christmas tree in my house and there wasn't the smell of a Christmas tree in my house. I have candles that smell like oranges or, you know, that invoke moods for me, like happy moods or invoke holiday moods. And that was probably more than a lot of things in my life. Those things invoke memory and mood for me.


There were a couple times where I put food in and completely forgot about it because I would know like, “oh, the cookies are done” when I would smell that they're done or, “the pizzas burned.” You know, I wouldn't even know that anything was burning. 


And the house would be like, everybody said it smelled like plastic. I accidentally put a plastic container in the oven, and it was burning and wafting through the house. I had no idea. 

It was so strange. I couldn't smell peanut butter, so then I couldn't taste peanut butter. I couldn't smell chocolate, so I couldn't taste chocolate. I felt like I was eating cheese pizza every day. Stuff like that, that just is like a blanket taste. 


I could taste sweet, and I could taste salty. But all the in-between notes were gone. So, it's funny because I'd have these cravings, you know, like it was a cold day and we thought, “Oh, let's go get pho.” Like, that's one of our favorite things. We went down to go eat it and it was warm and it was salty, but all the notes, you know, the basil that they have in the pho or the heat, I mean I could kind of taste the heat. But all the layers of the food were gone, but I had the memory of them being there and I wanted to eat them. But it's just not very satisfying because I just couldn't get those notes out of the food. 


And I still had the memory of being satisfied, so I had this memory of food being able to satisfy me. That didn't leave, and so I would think “Oh my gosh, that sounds so good. You know what, let's have chocolate pie” or whatever. And then I would taste the pie and I had the texture of chocolate and it was sweet, but didn't have that dark deliciousness that is so satisfying.


Lael: And now, Lauren's sense of smell is returning, but in a slow clipped and sometimes interrupted way.


Lauren: So, with my smell coming back, I've noticed that there's flavors that I'm tasting again, and it's amazing. It's like they're intensified. It’s like I'm tasting them for the first time and appreciating them.


The one that comes to mind recently was just a salad. It was a vinaigrette, and being able to taste the vinegar was tingling. And there was like this crescendo in my mouth, which is so weird, but also, I mean, exciting. And so, I've been really trying to pay attention to what I'm smelling because then I know I'll taste it. And I'm excited to taste things again. So I think it will just only get better. I'm hoping.


Lael: After talking to Lauren, I have decided not to take my sense of smell for granted anymore, and I'm sure thousands of people who are experiencing the same symptoms are feeling the same way. So maybe now's the time to head down to your local restaurant that serves pho, take a good slurp and enjoy the experience with a little more attention.