The sense of smell and taste “are functions we would never expect to lose, and when we do lose them, our vision of the world changes.” Find out how smell loss impacted a super-taster and what he did to regain it.
On March 17, 2020, Michele Crippa, a super-taster—somebody who experiences taste more strongly than others—and professor of gastronomy at multiple Italian universities, made himself a cup of coffee. It was 9:40 a.m. when he poured himself a cup and brought it under his nose. But instead of being greeted by the warm smell of roasted coffee beans, he felt a “cosmic void”—he couldn’t smell anything. That’s when he speculated that he had contracted COVID-19.
Crippa was experiencing anosmia, the loss or impairment of one’s sense of smell, and ageusia, the loss or impairment of taste. But he was not alone: back in 2020, around 41% of patients affected by COVID-19 were reporting these symptoms, per a review published in Mayo Clinic Proceedings. Moreover, according to a 2022 meta-analysis in BMJ, about 5% of individuals who have been infected with COVID-19 could develop persistent smell or taste dysfunction. After a few months, Crippa’s ageusia and other COVID-19 symptoms subsided. And while his sense of smell also came back, it was in an unexpected way: everything around him smelled like cooked cabbage and wet ashtray.
Every morning, before opening his eyes, Crippa prayed not to smell that awful scent. But all he could smell was wet cigarette ash. Eventually, in December 2020, he entered a new phase, called parosmia. He began sensing some odors, but they were all distorted: lemons and oranges smelled like soap, peaches like basil, coffee like sewage, and vanilla like vomit.
According to a 2020 study published in Chemical Senses, about 10% of those who experienced smell loss because of COVID-19 still suffered from different stages of smell distortions after six months.
Historically there have been treatments available for those experiencing issues with their sense of smell. Scientists and doctors around the world began proposing various remedies that ranged from essential oil therapy to getting hit on the head by a chiropractor, yet they often didn’t help or even exacerbated the problem. But there might be a silver lining for those suffering from this condition: according to Federica Genovese, a neuroscientist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia who’s studying the chemosensory effects of COVID-19, olfactory neurons are some of the few groups of neurons capable of cyclically regenerating throughout our lives. Simply put, this should cause the sense of smell to return with time. But when intense inflammation—like that caused by COVID-19—destroys these neurons, the regeneration process can go wrong, causing unexpected olfactory distortions.