'Pleasure ripped out': the people suffering long-term loss of taste after Covid

By Lucy Campbell

Around three weeks after Covid-19 completely took away her sense of smell and taste, Maggie Cubbler had a beer. It was a pale ale she’d had before and, to her excitement, it tasted wonderful – just as she remembered. She was ecstatic to feel she was on the road to normality, but she soon found that recovery from Covid is by no means linear.

“After that I started noticing that many things started smelling terrible – like absolutely revolting – and one of them was beer.” For a beer sommelier and writer of ten years, this was a devastating and isolating development. When the pandemic halted her beer travel business and decimated the industry generally, Cubbler had pivoted into doing a beer podcast. Now, with her sense of taste still muted and the source of her livelihood unbearable to smell, her career has been thrown into uncertainty.

“It’s so frustrating and dejecting. It’s a real stresser for people in these industries, we’re all lamenting our lot in life right now,” Cubbler said. She’s had no choice but to put her relationship with beer to one side for the foreseeable future, pivoting again to create an online magazine for women in their 40s. “I’m a pragmatic person but I’ve had to start a whole new career path at 40, which is really daunting. If I start to think about what I’ve lost, it’ll overwhelm me.”

More than half of people with Covid-19 experience the loss of smell or taste and while two-thirds recover within six to eight weeks, many are left without much improvement months down the line. Chrissi Kelly, the founder of smell loss charity AbScent, said there are over 200,000 cases of long-term anosmia in the UK, and smell loss had the potential to make people feel isolated and depressed.

With so much still to be learned about coronavirus, the potential lasting effects are yet to be fully realised. For professions that rely heavily on taste and smell, particularly in the hard-hit food and drinks industry, it could spell the end of careers.

Prof Barry Smith, the UK lead for the Global Consortium of Chemosensory Research (GCCR) examining smell loss as a Covid-19 symptom, said many people affected in the food and drinks industry are afraid to publicly discuss what they’re going through for fear for their livelihoods.

Recovery is a waiting game, but smell training can help hasten natural recovery. “It’s known that parosmia that follows complete smell loss is a sign of recovery where olfactory neurons are regenerating,” Smith said. “Finding more and more ‘safe’ food ingredients, without a distorted smell, and repeatedly sniffing them will improve discrimination and may help to reset and regularise one’s sense of smell.”

As a seasoned sommelier, Cubbler has found she can redirect her skills to train her brain to focus on stopping a trigger smell before it infiltrates, locks and overwhelms her. Though she has started smell training, she is conscious not to make herself anxious with trying to recover her senses. “I’m trying not to rush it because it will overwhelm me. But it’s a bit like Russian roulette because it’s still new and I don’t know what smell will gross me out next.”

When lockdown hit, food and wine writer Suriya Bala’s labour of love and income stream, a business running food and wine tours around Notting Hill, was killed off suddenly. She moved back home to Australia to write a series about west Australian wines, but tested positive for Covid-19 during her 14-day stay in hotel quarantine. When she recovered from a nasty illness, her smell and taste had completely gone.

Three months later, she can taste basics – sweet, sour, salty, bitter – but the anosmia has graduated to hyposmia: a decreased ability to detect odours. “Without scent you don’t have flavour,” she said. “I can now taste the top and bottom end but all the middle, the nuances and perfumed notes which is what wine is all about, it’s all gone. It’s a really empty experience.”

With her livelihood and passion revolving around food and wine, the smell loss could be life-changing. “For me, wine is art and right now it tastes like a glass of acidic water. I never ever thought Covid would affect me in this way. You don’t know until you’ve lost it.”

She has been practising smell training and trying to re-train herself to recognise and re-learn scents, but even with her scent now back at around 70% she fears it isn’t enough. “If I wasn’t able to recover my full smell and taste, I can’t imagine moving forward in the world of wine and food – the pleasure has been ripped out of it,” she said. “It’s rendered me pretty useless in what I’m here to do, which is almost too life-altering and dreadful to think about.”