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What is parosmia? COVID long-haulers speak out about the strange symptom making everything they eat taste and smell like ‘garbage’

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Imagine this: You sit down for an amazing home-cooked meal, featuring all of your favorites. All the food looks as wonderful and fresh as it ever has. Yet, there's something wrong. The smell doesn't pique your hunger — instead, a whiff of what should be a delicious dining experience makes you nauseous. And the first bite? Well, it's almost inedible. While the textures are still reminiscent of what you once knew, the taste can only be compared to sewage, garbage or maybe even gasoline.

If this sounds like a curse or something out of a Stephen King novel, it's not. It's a symptom associated with COVID-19 called parosmia — and, according to many people who say they've experienced it, it typically starts weeks to months after the initial infection.

The loss of smell and taste has long been associated with COVID-19 — it was one of the earliest symptoms associated with the virus that differentiated it from other illnesses. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a change in taste and smell is on the list of potential long haul COVID symptoms. Per the CDC, the symptom can occur in even those who have had mild illness.

Yet despite its place on the CDC website, the change in taste and smell after the initial COVID infection subsides has been discussed much less than the loss of taste and smell during infection. The condition, however, can lead to major health issues, from malnutrition to psychological issues surrounding food.

Social media, however, is opening up a conversation that those suffering from this condition say is long needed. Natalia Cano, a 20-year-old student at American University, was in tears when she took to TikTok this fall to discuss her parosmia symptoms, which have plagued her for 10 months. Her original video received more than 13 million views. Cano has since made others to shed light on her symptoms.

For Cano, water never tastes clean. The smell of deodorant is as severe as spray paint. Most importantly, nearly all food and beverages — save for a few "safer" options — make her nauseous. Cano says she forces herself to eat two Cliff Bars a day — not because they don't taste terrible, but because they're quick to scarf down.

Cano tested positive for COVID in the early days of 2021, while working at a bakery. While she recovered from the virus itself, she began experiencing serious gastrointestinal issues, alongside a particularly unusual symptom: a change in her taste and smell. The GI issues have since resolved, but Cano is still living with parosmia, which she says is affecting not only her eating habits but also her mental health. Her TikTok, she says, was posted out of frustration — she had just gone to the dining hall with friends, only to find that there wasn’t any food in the cafeteria she could stomach.

"Things taste like garbage. Like sewage," Cano tells Yahoo Life. "But it's not like it actually tastes like garbage or sewage, that's just the only way I can compare it to people. It's like I've been given this bad taste. It's the same amount of bad as rotting meat, garbage, sewage, but it doesn't taste like that."

Cano said it's been frustrating trying to find foods she can stomach — especially since there's little rhyme or reason to what tastes good. Things regularly shift. One day, California rolls were acceptable — the next, intolerable. These days, she says she can handle pulled pork sandwiches (possibly because of the sugar content, she suspects, as candy and Dr. Pepper isn't so bad, either), as well as strawberry yogurt.

"Every time I put something into my mouth, I know what it's supposed to taste like, and then it tastes disgusting," Cano says. "It's always just out of reach. I don't want to get used to this because I remember how good things used to be."

The experience has made Cano feel isolated — but TikTok has shown her she's not alone. Cano said there were "thousands" of people in her comments section experiencing these symptoms. Though she was told by a doctor that parosmia was a symptom of long haul COVID, she never expected so many people to be suffering in the same way she is.

"I thought maybe there were five people in the country who had this," she says. "I didn't know there were so many people. It's shocking to me to find out how many people actually have this because I'm wondering, ‘Why are we all suffering in silence? Why aren't we talking about it?'"

One such person is Jessica Cox, a 27-year-old producer, who made the connection between her January 2021 bout with COVID and her parosmia after seeing Cano's video.

"Everything tasted like one rotten thing — I don't know what that rotten thing is, but it’s a nasty taste and smell," Cox tells Yahoo Life. "I would just be walking and I would smell that nasty smell, and I didn't know where it was coming from."

It was only recently that Cox said she's been able to taste and smell more normally. However, things aren't how they were before COVID.

“I'll eat a blueberry, and it just doesn’t taste exactly like how I remember it," Cox says. "It doesn't taste rotten, but it doesn't taste exactly like a blueberry" used to.

While Cox has regained function, she shares that her experience with parosmia has led her to develop an eating disorder.

"I didn't connect the eating disorder to my COVID symptoms until I saw [Cano's] TikTok," Cox says. "I love food, but being unable to enjoy food for those months has changed things. My appetite went away. I don't enjoy food now. Yesterday, I woke up at 9 a.m., and I didn't eat until 8 p.m. I don't have an appetite. I don't think about food. When I do, I get nauseous, I start gagging — that's an everyday thing."

Ashley Zibetti, a 27-year-old photographer, has also taken to TikTok to share her story of parosmia. While her taste and smell symptoms subsided eight or nine months after her experience with COVID, they came on full force when she became pregnant. Now, they're worse than ever — like Cano and Cox, nearly everything tastes and smells rotten to her. She lost 20 pounds during her first trimester and says parosmia has also led to depression.

"We associate smells in our life with joy," Zibetti tells Yahoo Life. "For me, right now, I'm worried that I won't be able to enjoy my baby when she comes — her newborn baby smell, things like that. I'm a big foodie, and it’s sad I can't go to restaurants without feeling nauseous. That’s how we connect with our friends. It’s a way I connect with my husband — we love going out to eat for date nights, and there was a long period of time where we had to avoid anywhere that involved food."

She adds: "It’s hard, because there’s a lot of happiness and joy surrounding smelling things and tasting things, and that’s all gotten taken away from me.”

Zibetti is far from alone. According to Dr. Zachary Rubin, a Naperville, Ill.-based pediatrician who specializes in allergy treatment and immunology and works with Team Halo to address COVID-19 misinformation, it's a very common symptom of COVID-19. Between 30 and 60 percent of people who lose their taste and smell due to COVID will later experience it again, Rubin tells Yahoo Life.

"While this is not fully understood, smell loss is most likely due to direct damage from the SARS-CoV-2 virus on the olfactory nerve that senses smell, local inflammation and damage from our own immune system combating the virus, or both," Rubin explains. "Following this damage, this nerve is attempting to regenerate, but the nerves are most likely not connecting to the same place as before."

In a world where COVID has already affected millions of people — and, unfortunately, shows little sign of slowing down — there will be more and more people dealing with parosmia, as well as other unusual long haul symptoms of the virus. Speaking out about the detrimental effects is therefore important so that treatments can be researched.

So why aren't more people talking about it? It may be because it exists in an interesting middle ground — it's unusual enough to send off alarm bells to people who don't take COVID seriously, but may be shut down by those who don't think it's serious enough to discuss.

While Cano has received support on social media, she's also received hurtful comments from both of these sides.

"There are people who are like, 'I can see fake crying from a mile away. You're a paid actor from Moderna, from the CDC,'" Cano says. "Then there are people who are saying 'You need to get over it, there are people who are dying, this doesn’t affect you that much.' Meanwhile, it's preventing me from doing things that are basic for human survival. It's turning into a serious, chronic health condition."

Cox, meanwhile, doesn’t think people get the severity of the symptoms — and some have even joked about its "upside."

"I've told people before and they're like, 'Wow, that's really cool, you should be losing a lot of weight since you’re just eating to survive,'" Cox shares. "I don't know why people are so obsessed with that. I would 100 percent rather have my sense of taste and smell than lose weight. It's not worth it."

For now, all three women still experience parosmia to a certain degree. But they remain hopeful that their lives will go back to normal one day. "There’s been a lot of people in the comments section saying 'Hey, don’t be discouraged, I’ve had this for a year and a half, and it magically got better,'" Cano shares. "There were other people who said that if you got parosmia from a virus, it was unlikely to last more than two years, so that gave me some hope."

Cano adds: "I think, after two years, if it’s still this bad, I’m going to have all these feelings again, maybe worse. But there have been people who said, 'I've had this, and it's gone away.'"

—Video produced by Katarina Vasquez.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, call the National Eating Disorders Association hotline at 1-800-931-2237.

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