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Columbia stories of losing taste and smell from COVID-19

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For some, COVID-19 has seriously altered the way they taste the flavors of food.

“It was a weird experience,” said Lauren McAlexander. “I didn't have an appetite, I wasn't hungry. It wasn't fun to eat, because I couldn't taste anything so it was never like I'm going to make a sandwich for lunch. I was forcing myself to just eat whatever I could to have nourishment in my body.”

McAlexander lives in West Columbia and works locally doing digital marketing at ADCO. It was mid-November when she started suddenly feeling the effects of COVID-19. While loss of taste is a well-known symptom of the virus, it was the unexpected long-term effects — continuing taste issues, loss of smell, intense morning congestion — that made McAlexander’s case standout.

“With taste the weirdest thing that's happened to me is... when you lose your taste and it starts gradually coming back you can taste if something is salty, but you can't taste the flavor of it,” she explained. “Something like fried chicken for example, I can taste the salt, but I can't taste the chicken. If I were eating ice cream, I wouldn't be able to taste it if it was mint chocolate chip, chocolate or strawberry, I would just taste sugar.”

Local food writer and chef Justin Burke experienced similar symptoms after he contracted COVID-19 last July. After a difficult stretch of the illness which included periods of going in and out of consciousness, Burke believed he was on the road to recovery until he and his boyfriend decided to have their first full meal: a steak, roasted squash and garlic rice.

“I kept adding more salt to it thinking that would help,” he recalls. “I added so much salt to it it almost looked like a salt block. Crusted.”

He notes how metallic the steak tasted and how rotten the squash seemed. That was shortly after the tail end of two weeks with coronavirus.

Through guidance from friends, Burke dove into research and found out about “long haulers,” individuals with COVID-19 symptoms well beyond the established two-week period. The long-hauler symptoms not only have played a role physically on Burke, but have had a massive direct impact on his everyday work as a food writer and recipe developer. He lost a cookbook deal and had to let go of contracts with publications because he simply couldn’t taste his food.

Eight months later, Burke is still battling lingering symptoms of the virus. It was only after his first vaccine in early March that his major symptoms - brain fog, fatigue, and migraines - suddenly were relieved. His sensory issues, however, still remain.

Burke and McAlexander are two of many this past year who have had this life-altering shared experience.

“This is definitely the first single incidence where we have a huge increase of people suffering from things like anosmia or dysgeusia (loss of smell/taste unrelated to underlying conditions),” said Alissa Nolden, an assistant professor in the food science department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst specializing in sensory evaluation and chemosensory disorders. “It's an eye-opening experience for a lot of individuals. Until you've experienced taste or smell loss, there's not a lot of appreciation for those who go through this experience.”

[Online copy corrected.]

Nolden indicated that one of the unique things about loss of taste or smell from COVID is that it is completely unrelated to stuffy nose or congestion like traditional respiratory illnesses. Researchers have not yet uncovered the reason these senses are attacked by the virus.

What COVID-19 has done, however, is help enable the field of taste research exponential growth never seen before.

“It brought together a large community of people studying taste and smell,” Nolden offered. “We've gotten together as a large community, hundreds of academic researchers interested in studying this topic. We've been able to put together surveys that help to look at this phenomenon which is very different than in the past.”

Nolden believes this could lead to both innovation and new research on not just those who lost senses due to COVID-19, but also cancer patients and others as well.

For Burke and McAlexander, while tastes have come back to an extent, their experiences over time have been varying and difficult to fully grasp. Both have major sensitivities to spice. McAlexander recalled trying to eat a banana pudding during the holidays and finding it to be exceedingly hot due to sharply tasting the vanilla extract in the pudding. Burke also found sensitivity to vinegar and pickles, which produce a sulphur-like taste to him.

The experience for Burke, however painful and frustrating, has benefited in that it altered his approach to food writing to be more inclusive to those with physical disabilities.

“It's interesting to me how I didn't prioritize other parts of cooking as much as I thought I did,” Burke said. ”It's like texture. Visuals. Noise. Those are all very important aspects of cooking and I want to write about it. It's not just expense or access. It's not just saying something is golden, but also how it feels or sounds.”

For McAlexander, her experience with COVID-19 is two-pronged, first in how subtly the virus can enter a home. Many of her early symptoms mimicked allergies she had, even losing taste. McAlexander recalled thinking if she had gone to Thanksgiving, how many people she could have exposed if she wasn’t careful, including her grandmother.

She also noted how varying and deceptive the short- and long-term symptoms of coronavirus can be.

“I think some people that have had COVID think they are back to normal, but if you really analyze your day to day and evaluate your experiences you might realize things are actually a little different,” she posited.

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