COVID-19 has made college extremely challenging for students. The strict safety protocols and resulting isolation can lead to a dramatically altered college experience. For Maille Baker, a rising sophomore from Hartland, Maine studying sociology in Quebec, her freshman experience was significantly impacted by a long-term COVID-19 complication. It affected one thing most people take for granted on a daily basis: eating.
Maille Baker suffered from a COVID-19 complication called parosmia, a condition affecting her taste and smell in strange ways. Parosmia caused many of her once-favorite foods to smell and taste like rancid garbage.
“I didn’t enjoy any foods. There was no protein in my diet at all,” Maille told Focus. “I thought I was getting to the end of all the hard stuff that came with COVID-19, especially all the isolation at school. And then this hit me right in the face,” she said. “It was very difficult.”
Maille first developed COVID-19 during Thanksgiving break in 2020. Then 17, she considered her case relatively mild. Maille thought she fully recovered following some fatigue over the winter, until one day in March, she noticed that her new toothpaste tasted strange. She initially chalked it up to being a new brand she hadn’t tried before. It turned out to foreshadow what was to come.
That week she took a bite of a fast food burger, and that too tasted strange. The following day she went to her dining hall to order another burger hoping it would be better, but it was “really awful.” “That’s when I realized it had a similar taste to the toothpaste and I thought something weird was going on,” said Maille.
She woke up the next morning thinking she had a developed an aversion to meat. She went back to the dining hall and ordered some plain noodles with garlic sauce, and thought, “If this tastes bad, something is definitely wrong.” Sure enough, that too had an intense and disgusting flavor. Other foods she’d try after were not remotely palatable.
“Garlic, onions, meat and chocolate all had that garbage and sewage flavor,” she said.
Carbonated drinks tasted like chemicals, and baked goods, especially anything with vanilla, tasted “sickly sweet.”
Maille’s smell was also impacted. A stroll through the dining hall became unbearable. She ordered a cheese pizza one night thinking it was safe a choice. But it brought her to tears to the point she had to have a friend from down the hall remove it from her room.
“It took a while to figure out this was all related to COVID-19, since this was taking place many months after,” she said. “I knew COVID-19 was causing smell loss, but I had never seen anything about taste distortion. That’s why it was all so confusing.”
COVID-19 and taste
The most commonly reported symptom of COVID-19 affecting the senses is called anosmia, a loss of smell. Less common, is parosmia, which causes people to experience mismatched smells.
Because smell is so tied to taste, many patients experiencing these conditions become distraught due to their impaired eating, explained George Scangas, MD, a sinus specialist and surgeon at Mass Eye and Ear. The tongue is responsible for basic tastes like salty, sweet and bitter, but most of the subtle flavors we taste, like in soup, sauces, or wine for example, are linked to sense of smell.
Scientists have learned that COVID-19 uses some of the receptors on smell nerves in the nose as an entry point into the human body, but it remains unclear why some people lose and regain smell and taste quickly and others don’t.
“There is a significant percentage of COVID-19 patients who not only have their smell altered or lose it entirely, but also never recover fully. Awareness of this possibility and its huge impact on quality of life is yet another important example of why you should do everything you can to avoid contracting the virus,” said Dr. Scangas.
Dr. Scangas said if someone experiences a sudden loss of smell, that person should get tested for COVID-19. Smell loss is yet another reason to get vaccinated and talk to family members and doctors about vaccination, he added.
“People focus on being intubated in the ICU and potentially dying, and rightly so. But even if you’re lucky enough to have a mild course of the virus, things like smell loss can change your life,” said Dr. Scangas.
Living with parosmia
At first, parosmia affected Maille’s daily eating and mental health. She had so few options for food living on campus; due to COVID-19 protocols, dining halls only served premade foods which she couldn’t tolerate. All she could eat was bread and butter (not toast though, which tasted foul) and buttered pasta.
She moved off campus where she could experiment with food more, which continued when she returned home to Maine and her family bought her bags of groceries to taste test. She soon found some low FODMAP brands of food, made for people with food sensitivities, that she could tolerate.
A Facebook group consisting of more than 35,000 people with COVID-19-related smell issues led her mom to a doctor in California. That led to a referral to Dr. Scangas in late June 2021.
Dr. Scangas first had to rule out other issues like tumors, polyps and head trauma by doing a thorough exam. Eventually his diagnosis confirmed the suspicions of parosmia.
Dr. Scangas prescribed Maille smell (or olfactory) training, which involved sniffing essential oils including clove, eucalyptus, rose and lemon for short periods of time.
“Unfortunately, there are not any medications proven to increase the odds of smell recovery. Smell training is like physical therapy for the smell nerves,” said Dr. Scangas. “Published studies have shown that smelling strong scents two times a day over the course of months can sometimes help the nerves come back online stronger and faster.”
Maille now mostly eats variations of bread, pasta, most cheeses, avocados and tofu. She can even eat pizza, as long as it’s homemade, which helps her feel a return to some normalcy. Her culinary path is far from straightforward. Some foods she’ll tolerate will taste awful days later, and she needs to vary her recipes. She holds out hope for more improvement; but for now, she’s much better equipped to feed herself. She knows which foods she should take out with her, which has reduced the anxiety of eating out with friends.
“I feel a lot better than I did the first few months,” said Maille. She hopes her story will resonate with others who aren’t taking COVID-19 as seriously.
“I know some people who are not very worried about COVID-19 because they’re young and healthy. I was 17 and otherwise healthy and didn’t even have a bad case. But now almost 10 months later, my everyday life, morning to night, is completely affected all the time,” she said. “Parosmia is something that should be talked about more so more people can be motivated to be careful or get vaccinated, even if they are young and healthy.”
Hear more of Maille’s story in Maine Public Radio.