‘Mentally, it’s excruciating’: Life without a sense of taste and smell

With low recovery rates and links to depression and suicide, reports that coronavirus can cause the loss of two of the only five senses you’ll ever have should not be taken lightly, writes anosmia survivor Mick O’Hare

Monday 18 May 2020 13:45
Anosmia is a commonly reported symptom of the new virus
Anosmia is a commonly reported symptom of the new virus

It’s something I heard a lot. “Well, if you had to lose one sense, that would be the one, wouldn’t it?” alongside “I don’t think it would bother me that much”. Back in 1998 I lost my sense of smell (and seemingly my sense of taste) to a virus. Now stories are circulating that one common symptom of Covid-19 is loss of taste and smell. It’s known as anosmia. Sounds minor – it isn’t.

It’s likely that most of the new cases we are seeing only involve loss of the sense of smell. We know Covid-19 resides in our airways and we know viruses can affect olfaction. But most of what we think of as taste is actually flavour detected by our olfactory system. So when we lose our sense of smell we also think we have lost our sense of taste too.

Our tongue can only detect sweet, salt, bitter, sour and umami. So when we eat a strawberry our taste buds tell us it’s sweet but it is actually our olfactory system that tells us the sweetness is strawberry-flavoured, rather than mango or nectarine. So even though we say we are “tasting” a strawberry, what we are experiencing is actually its flavour produced by the odour of the strawberry passing into our nasal cavities through the link between mouth and nose. This is why when we lose our sense of smell, we are also convinced we have lost our sense of taste as well. And to lose what seems like two of only five senses is not only disorienting, it can be devastating too.

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