‘Everything smells like a more disgusting version of Spaghetti O’s’: Recovered COVID patients report awful phantom smells

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Credit: Cornelia Li/NPR

Instead of a scentless world, an increasing number of people who lost their sense of smell because of Covid-19 are complaining that things just don’t smell right.

They no longer wake up and can’t smell the coffee; because of parosmia, their coffee smells like burning rubber or sewage. Parosmia is most often an unpleasant smell, a distortion of an actual odor, making many foods smell and taste revolting. Phantosmia is more random, occurring without a scent trigger, uninvited and unwanted. Phantosmias, which can be fleeting or linger, are also usually foul smells, often cigarette smoke or burning wood—or for one poster on Reddit, “everything smells like a more disgusting version of Spaghetti O’s.”

The good news, says Nancy Rawson, vice president and associate director at Monell Chemical Senses Center, a non-profit interdisciplinary research institute in Philadelphia, is that cells in the olfactory epithelium can regenerate after they have been damaged. But that regeneration can take time—up to two years, or more. “If it’s affecting mature neurons, then the immature neurons need to mature fully and connect to the olfactory bulb,” she says.

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Rawson says that because the brain is receiving incomplete smell information, “when the recovery process is happening in patches, or recovery is partial in different regions, you may go through that stage of parosmia on the way to a fuller recovery.”

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