The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Covid has changed the way I eat. Don’t take chances with omicron.

(Washington Post illustration)
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“What are you even doing?” my mother yelled from across the room.

I’d been comically trotting around the house, picking up a few items and holding them to my nose to determine if they were the culprits behind the stench.

“Trying to figure out what stinks.”

Suddenly, holding a Tupperware of chopped onions, I had a primary suspect. “That’s it! It’s the onions,” I exclaimed.

My mom grabbed the container and promptly put it back. “I chopped these 15 minutes ago. There is no way they are rotten.”

I caught the coronavirus in April 2021, during India’s deadly second wave, which drove a worldwide surge in cases. My infection, although technically “mild,” left me bedridden with a high fever and headaches throughout the 10-day isolation period. As my quarantine ended, I was relieved that the worst was behind me — or so I thought.

A month into recovery, I started noticing a rude cacophony of pungent smells that were mildly rotten, then sometimes metallic after they entered my nose. Desperate for answers, my investigations concluded that everything stank — but onions and garlic were the primary culprits.

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I figured the ailment would disappear, but it didn’t. After a month of fiddling with my food, unable to work up an appetite because of the stench, a tweet led me to discover that I was suffering from a condition that made me a “covid long-hauler.” I barely understood what that meant at the time, but I knew it would be awhile before things were okay.

Parosmia, a condition in which normal smells register as “unpleasant or even disgusting,” is one of the more than 200 symptoms that researchers have associated with long covid. Long covid refers to symptoms occurring more than 30 days after a positive test, and it affects up to one-third of those infected with covid-19. It can affect anyone who is infected with the virus, even those who are not high-risk.

Breakthrough infections for vaccinated people have been at unprecedented high levels with the omicron variant, which means there’s now a looming uncertainty about how long covid will affect them. Anthony S. Fauci has confirmed that long covid can develop “no matter what virus variant occurs.” Most agree that vaccines reduce but do not eliminate the risk of long covid. Researchers say we’ll have to wait until May 2022 to properly assess omicron’s relationship with long covid.

While parosmia isn’t as life-threatening as other long covid conditions that damage vital organs, that doesn’t make it easy to live with. As Richard Orlandi, an ear, nose and throat physician, told University of Utah Health, “Depending on the severity, this condition can range from an annoyance to a frustrating and anxiety-inducing symptom.”

For me and others, that frustration is compounded by the uncertainty that comes with a lack of treatment or cure. It’s partly what led me to seek my own answers — talking to other young women who, like me, had no idea what to make of this newfound impairment.

When Aditi Mehta, a 24-year-old from New Delhi, got typical covid-19 symptoms in April 2021 despite being partially vaccinated, they lasted only 24 hours, she said. But a month later, her sense of smell started playing tricks on her. When she turned to her doctor for advice, she received no answers, she said: “They had no idea what was happening.”

A doctor recently confirmed that physicians could not help Madison Evangelista, a 29-year-old from Washington state, with a loss of smell that has persisted for months. Evangelista was infected in December 2020, right before the vaccine rollout in the United States. Parosmia symptoms showed up months later, and she still struggles with them, she said.

A friend told her there was no way it could be happening because all of her friends who had covid-19 had recovered, Evangelista said: “I thought there was something wrong with me because I wasn’t getting better but everybody else was.”

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Googling symptoms proved helpful for many, as it enabled people with parosmia to find support online. For Mehta, just discovering what it was called gave her experience legitimacy. “When I saw the name, I knew my condition was real and I wasn’t alone,” she said.

Finding a community allowed many to process how profound a loss it had been. “It’s one of your five senses, after all,” said Vaishnavi Bajpai, a 21-year-old from Uttar Pradesh, India, who is studying medicine and who tested positive for the coronavirus in November 2020.

Our sense of smell is often underappreciated, even though it plays a key role in our perception of environmental hazards, nutrition, social relationships and overall well-being. Simply put: When smell goes, everything goes.

The most unforeseen consequence of parosmia for me was how paranoid it made me for my safety. Some accused me of hyperbolizing my condition when I would triple-check the stove — no longer trusting myself to detect a gas leak. But speaking to Bajpai about my fears confirmed that they weren’t nearly as irrational as I thought. She said she’d been heating a bucket of water and didn’t realize it was burning on an immersion rod; she couldn’t smell the smoldering plastic. She frantically called her mother, she said, unsure whether she would “ever be able to live alone like this.”

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For some, what stings most is no longer being able to enjoy food. During the worst phase of my parosmia, the thought of food would send me down a spiral — I was conflicted between not wanting to eat because of the smell, yet obviously needing nutrition. Parosmia didn’t just dull my appetite — it also stole a treasured hobby. Simply stepping inside the kitchen to cook or bake would push me into crying spells. Eventually, to spare myself the emotional turmoil, I stopped cooking altogether.

Many, I found, had similar experiences with their relationship to food.

To Rachel LaFerriere, a 22-year-old student from Ohio who got covid in August 2021 despite being fully vaccinated, many foods smelled like a “garlicky, oniony plate of eggs left sitting out for two weeks.” For her, parosmia has darkly colored life’s little moments. “Going into a restaurant and smelling the food was one of the joys of my life. And now it’s ruined,” she said.

The loss of routine meals weighed heavily on Shreya Garg, a 21-year-old from Haryana, India, who was infected with covid in June 2021. She misses devouring her cherished breakfast of seven years — a parantha (stuffed flatbread) and green chutney. “I tried it again recently. It wasn’t the best. I’m ignoring that this is a lifelong issue for people and [that] it might never be 100 percent again for me,” she said.

Six months in, my parosmia is no longer a daily interruption. Yet I don’t feel okay enough to say I’m “recovered.” I still can’t eat onions and garlic. And many others like me are experiencing varied emotions about the unexpected, lasting changes.

Some, like Garg and LaFerriere, say they avoid thinking about it, optimistic that their bodies will pull through. (As LaFerriere put it: “If I have to live with it forever, I’ll find ways to adapt.”)

For others, the omicron wave has only heightened anxiety about the condition. “I have a lot of fear of catching covid again,” Evangelista said. “I don’t know how that’s going to impact my parosmia.”

But it’s not only the long-haulers like us who need to watch out.

The “omicron is mild” narrative is rooted in a false binary — you either succumb to the infection or emerge unscathed. This overlooks the understated middle child: the possibility of developing long covid conditions that can alter the course of your life.

Most of the people interviewed for this article experienced largely asymptomatic infections. University of Arizona Health Sciences found that 67 percent of people who recovered from “mild or moderate” infections experienced symptoms more than 30 days after their positive test.

Despite popular perception, a mild infection doesn’t guarantee a 10-day quarantine and then business as usual. We’re already noticing troubling consequences of the “omicron is mild” narrative — “covid parties,” for example, designed to infect people with omicron to get it out of the way. That we’re in the thick of a pandemic with a virus that’s ever-evolving should be reason enough to not take a new variant lightly.

But if that’s not reason enough — take it from me: You don’t want to wake up one morning with your morning cup of coffee smelling like rotten milk.

Nona Uppal is a freelance writer based in New Delhi.