When Andrew Cooney, 22, walked through the hallway of a dorm at Susquehanna University, in Selinsgrove, he was surprised to catch a whiff of shampoo. It wasn’t the fact that someone had apparently taken a shower that surprised him; it was the realization that this was the first time he’d smelled even a trace of shampoo since he’d been diagnosed with COVID-19 in early February.
“I’m at the point now that I don’t notice a smell is gone until it comes back,” he said. “My normal is more non-smell.”
With COVID-19, most people understand a loss of sense of smell is one of the first symptoms.
“It’s very common with COVID,” said Dr. Robin Spangler, UPMC Primary Care-Lewisburg. “Somewhere around 80 percent of people with COVID get this symptom.”
“Usually if it’s persistent over a month or so, that might be an indication that they should notify their doctor,” said Dr. Timothy Lindemann, otolaryngologists at Geisinger. “They might need further workup.”
The COVID-19 virus affects the sense of smell by binding to the receptors of the olfactory nerves, affecting the function of the support cells around the nerves, said Dr. Lisa Ayers, otolaryngologist at Surgical Specialists of Evangelical
“It’s such a small viral particle that it can get through the nasal passages to the receptors of the olfactory nerves,” she said.
Sixty to 70 percent of people recover their sense of smell within eight weeks, Ayers said. After six months, 90 to 95 percent are fully recovered.
Dr. Spangler’s daughter, Marissa Spangler, 20, was diagnosed with COVID-19 in January. After mild cold symptoms she was left with a loss of sense of smell for about a month and is still feeling traces of it.
“There are certain things I feel I can’t smell strongly anymore or taste as strong,” said Spangler, of Northumberland. “I feel like I’ve gotten accustomed to it.”
A few weeks ago she and friends were shopping at Bath & Body Works, sniffing different fragrances.
“When I went to smell something, it needed to be super, super strong in my nose for me to smell it, and that was kind of frustrating,” she said. “I would say my sense of smell is not 100 percent back yet, but I would say 95 percent.”
Cooney, diagnosed in early February, misses the seasonal scents of spring.
“I mowed grass several times this year, and totally didn’t get the smell of the grass clippings,” he said. “Every now and then I’ll pick up on a smell, but very briefly.”
When he and his girlfriend drove through country roads she mentioned the smell of manure spread on farmers’ fields. Cooney couldn’t smell it. When she one day mentioned the fresh smell of rain, he couldn’t smell that, either.
“I used to enjoy that,” he said.
‘Tasted like cardboard’Though people do have some sense of taste regardless of sense of smell, being able to smell greatly enhances our ability to taste more flavor.
“About 80 percent of your sense of taste is attributed to your sense of smell,” Lindemann said. “Without those subtle odors that you pick up with your smell sensation, with the tongue all you get is salty, sour, bitter, sweet and savory.”
“Things aren’t going to taste right,” Dr. Spangler agreed. “There is some taste associated, just not necessarily tasting good or tasting right.”
Some people might feel like not eating at all because they can’t taste their food, Ayers said, while others might overeat because they aren’t appreciating the taste.
“You can taste — saltiness or sourness — but not necessarily the minute flavors that give us that enjoyment of food,” she said.
Marissa Spangler has always associated the smell of food with its taste. When she lost her sense of smell, she also lost her appetite, to the point of losing eight pounds.
“When I couldn’t smell or taste, it kind of made me sad and depressed,” she said. “I was like, man, I can’t even enjoy this stuff anymore.”
After losing his sense of smell, Cooney ate one of his favorite chicken sandwiches at the Hawk’s Nest, at Susquehanna University.
“It pretty much tasted like cardboard,” he said. “The whole thing.”
Because he does an hour of fitness every day, though, he kept eating.
“My appetite has not changed. I still get hungry constantly,” he said. “I kind of have the mentality I had to eat just to keep going.”
New perspectivesBoth Spangler and Cooney had mild cases of COVID-19 and returned quickly to their regular activities. Contracting the virus that has affected millions of people around the world gave them both a unique perspective.
“I would say, don’t take the small things for granted,” Marissa Spangler said. “Remember, for the vast majority of people who lose their sense of smell with COVID, it’s temporary.”
Cooney, who has been cautious about social distancing throughout the pandemic, is thankful he didn’t inadvertently spread the virus to his parents, sister and girlfriend.
“It’s not always something wrong you did,” he said. “People say, ‘You’re being safe. I trust you.’ But that has nothing to do with it. Doctors get it. They’re being responsible. Anyone can get it.”
Cindy O. Herman lives in Snyder County. Email comments to her at CindyOHerman@gmail.com.