The Doc Project·PERSONAL ESSAY

COVID-19 stole my sense of smell. Will I ever get it back?

Montrealer Stephen Smith caught COVID-19 in March and lost his sense of smell. Then he noticed food and drink tasted different. Nearly nine months later, his senses still haven't returned to normal. He wonders if they ever will.

Smell triggers memories, and Stephen Smith worries this link may be lost to him forever

Montrealer Stephen Smith lost his sense of smell in March, at the beginning of the pandemic. Then things started smelling and tasting strange. His senses still haven't returned to normal. (Submitted by Stephen Smith)

When I suddenly lost my sense of smell on March 22, it was still the early days of the pandemic. The link between COVID-19 and the loss of sense of smell (and taste) was still unclear. Today, loss of smell — a condition known as anosmia — is a well-known symptom of the disease. The question now is whether my sense of smell will ever return.

I can smell a little but it just doesn't smell right. Same thing with my taste — I can taste food, but certain foods I used to love now taste terrible.

It all began one Sunday back in March. I sat down for supper with my wife, Karina, and our five-year-old daughter, Eila, and about five minutes into the meal it dawned on me that I couldn't smell the food. I could still taste it, but the flavours were muted.

Later that same evening, I started to wonder if there may be a connection with the pandemic, so I googled "smell loss and COVID." Among the first hits was a New York Times article published that same day: "Lost Sense of Smell May Be Peculiar Clue to Coronavirus Infection."

According to the article, Italian doctors had concluded that "a loss of taste and smell is an indication that a person who otherwise seems healthy is in fact carrying the virus and may be spreading it to others."

Up until then, no one was talking about loss of smell as a symptom of COVID-19 infection.

Stephen Smith, with his wife Karina and their five-year-old daughter, Eila. Stephen and Karina both contracted COVID-19 in March 2020. (Submitted by Stephen Smith)

In the days that followed, Karina developed a high fever and a deep, dry, raspy cough that matched everything I was reading and hearing about COVID-19. Faced with her illness and the fear I felt for our daughter, the fact that I only couldn't smell was the least of my concerns. 

I looked into getting all three of us tested. But at the time, the criteria for getting tested were limited to people who had been travelling outside of Canada or who knew someone with COVID-19. We didn't fit the bill, and were told to stay at home and self-isolate.

Fortunately, Karina turned a corner about four days in and stabilized, and Eila never developed any symptoms at all. Of the three of us, I'm the only one who suffered any lasting impact from our brush with COVID-19. 

I assumed the sense would gradually return, but started to get concerned when April turned to May. Spring was in the air but my nose had no idea. The first rains of the season, the scent of fallen leaves exposed to the sun as the snow melts, fresh air through open windows — all those welcome scents of the season were lost on me.

Around this time I joined a Facebook group for people who lost their sense of smell to COVID-19 whose membership has since skyrocketed to more than 14,000. 

The Facebook group, run by a charity called AbScent based in Andover, about 115 km southwest of London, provides an outlet for those trying to make sense of this sudden disability. I learned I was lucky that the virus hadn't altered how things smell and taste, turning favourite foods foul, like it had for many others in the group. 

Desensitized

My luck in this department ran out around the three-month mark when coffee, peanut butter and chocolate suddenly acquired a moldy smell and taste that made me gag. 

Peanut butter was the first to really go off when I took a bite one morning and it tasted like mildew.

Cucumber, carrots, cilantro and minty toothpaste later joined the list, acquiring an odour and taste that blended flowers and diesel. Wine and beer also started tasting off on the first sip or two but thankfully improved with persistence.

WATCH | Catching COVID-19 unexpectedly:

How I became New Brunswick's first case of COVID-19 community transmission | This Happened to Me

12 months ago
4:23
When Kym Murphy, a 54-year-old school bus driver in Rothesay, N.B., started to feel unwell, she didn't suspect COVID-19. After all, she was washing her hands, she was practising physical distancing, and, importantly, she hadn't been travelling. 4:23

Anything citrus-based smelled like I was trapped in an elevator with someone wearing cheap perfume. 

My go-to soap and shampoo took on a creamy, mildly nauseating butter-like scent, so I switched to unscented. 

Once-comforting smells were all off — the steam in the shower, my wife's pillow on a sunny morning, my daughter's hair after a bath all had me holding my nose. 

A gateway to memories

While most COVID-19 patients regain their sense of smell after a few weeks, I've started wondering what life might be like if mine doesn't come back completely.

We experience so much of the world through our nose. The first thing to greet us when we walk through the door after a long day is that familiar, comforting scent of home. 

Some scents embed themselves in our memory and leave an emotional imprint. Smelled again years later, they have a unique ability to trigger long-buried, often poignant memories. The soap we used to bathe Eila when she was a baby would suddenly cast me back to those early, sleep-deprived days; sea breeze and wood smoke conjured my days roaming the tiny Scottish island where I tended bar one summer, lonely but never more alive.

Without the ability to smell, I'm scared this path to the past might disappear.

Then, on Sept. 13, the potential impact of this loss became much more real. My father died.  

Dad and I were extremely close, our bond rooted in his love of sports and my adolescent abilities as a goalie and a pitcher.

Often scent is connected with memories. Stephen, left, his sister Wendy and their father, Bud Smith, are pictured here with the father and son wearing the uniforms for the baseball team Bud Smith coached. (Submitted by Stephen Smith)

There are so many scents linked to those days with Dad at hockey rinks and baseball tournaments and our many road trips to Montreal to see the Expos and Canadiens play: locker rooms and goalie gear; hot chocolate and canteen coffee; hot dogs and popcorn; baseball mitts and Big League Chew bubble gum. Catching a trace of any one of these could conjure him for me and bring him close again.

Any one of these smells might have the power to suddenly bridge time, space and death and connect me with Dad. It's difficult to think that link may be gone.

I smell bacon!

It's been nearly nine months since I lost my sense of smell, but there are signs that it may be slowly returning. 

Just the other day I caught a whiff of bacon frying in the kitchen for the first time in months. I turned to Karina and Eila and told them: "I smell bacon!" 

They looked at me, wondering why I was stating the obvious, but then they got it, too. "Ahh, you smell bacon!"  

I also recently discovered that peanut butter, while still far from perfect, is no longer as putrid as it was. 

Stephen Smith trying to smell a Christmas tree at Montreal's Atwater Market. (Submitted by Stephen Smith)

I mentioned this last little victory to the Facebook group and it was met with celebration. We still don't know if this disability is temporary or permanent and so we all welcome these little wins.

Like the rest of the group, I just want to wake up and have the scents that make a home smell like they should — my daughter's soap, my wife's shampoo and the muffins they're baking while I write this.  

I just want spring to smell like spring, lemon to smell like lemon, and my baseball glove to remind me of my Dad.

About the contributor

Stephen Smith is a former CBC journalist who now makes a living in Montreal's vibrant video game industry. While at CBC, he produced the award-winning Ideas documentary, "To Heal a Sick Nation: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ideas," and the spin-off documentary "Tapping into Martin Luther King" about Harry Belafonte and his friendship with Dr. King. A native of Ottawa, Stephen now lives in Montreal with his wife, Karina, and his daughter, Eila.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversationCreate account

Already have an account?

now