In March, I lost one of my closest and dearest friends from childhood to COVID-19. A prominent attorney, he shared his experience battling the disease with me in an exclusive and deeply personal interview that was published just days before he succumbed to the virus at the age 57. As I review the notes I scribbled at the time—some nine months later, I remember he mentioned that besides feeling lethargic and having severe breathing problems, he had also lost his sense of smell. I remember he said, “Glenn, it’s really strange. But things that usually smell good, now stink!” At the time, I didn’t overthink what he said and didn’t ask him to explain. I wish I had. Back then, all of the research and data I read about COVID-19 mentioned nothing about patients having olfactory problems. There was little or no mention of sensory issues—specifically a loss of the sense of smell. The common link among all COVID-19 patients at the time was severe respiratory and breathing issues.
In November, I read a press release indicating that scientists have uncovered clues to explain how the coronavirus viciously attacks the nervous system by studying a seldom discussed commonality among many COVID-19 patients—a distorted sense of smell. The condition is called parosmia. In some cases, patients reported french fries smelling like rotting meat; freshly brewed coffee smelling like burning rubber; sweet chocolate smelling like disinfectant or bleach—the kind President Donald Trump suggested people inject or ingest to kill the virus!
Once again, like dozens of times before, the hard-nosed and intrepid journalist emerged with a focused vengeance. I immersed myself in finding out everything I could about parosmia and how it impacts victims and the coronavirus. During my research, I located a school teacher in neighboring Elizabeth, N.J. She had lost her sense of smell entirely for nearly a month after catching COVID-19 in March. Her sense of smell returned in May. However, once familiar foods and drinks didn’t smell like they used to. She said, “I thought, how could all these different things all have the same smell of dead animals?” Eventually, her sense of smell returned. She also survived her bout with the virus. The teacher and my buddy’s biggest difference was that she was a female and about a decade or so younger. Doctors and scientists alike assert the notion the virus kills off olfactory neurons. Another possibility is that the body destroys certain pathways to keep the virus and infection from reaching the brain. Another more plausible explanation is that the
ACE-2 receptor—the critical protein through which the coronavirus enters the body, is not present in olfactory (smell) sensory neurons. At any rate, while all of that scientific jargon, rhetoric, and speculation is confusing–the bottom line is that COVID-19 is putrid and just plain stinks!
With several vaccines on the horizon and a possible distribution to millions of people by the end of the year, the pandemic may be nearing its end. After about ten months of living in a COVID-19 infected world that has obliterated more than 275,000 lives in the U.S.,–a more orderly, standard, and complacent lifestyle is indeed just around the corner…..I can smell it!!