Lasting COVID-19 side effects force patients to change their diets, lifestyles

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DENVER (KDVR) — A fraction of recovered COVID-19 patients are struggling with a long-lasting side effect that prevents them from enjoying common foods.

Parosmia is a condition where a person experiences a distortion of their sense of smell. Dr. David Beckham, a neuro-infectious disease expert with UCHealth, says a form of this a neurological side effect of COVID-19 is commonly found in larger studies. He estimates roughly 25 percent of the patients he has seen have reported having smell or taste abnormalities.

Beckham says studies show the condition occurs after the virus damages nerves in an area of the sinuses. He says that can essentially disrupt the signals that are required to go from the sensory nerves in the nose to the brain.

“We don’t really understand why some people get this and some don’t,” said Beckham, “we know they can recover over time. It just depends how much injury there was to those nerves.”

Amanda Frankeny experienced a version of this symptom about a week after her first COVID-19 symptoms in March.

“I started noticing things tasting completely off. I couldn’t really smell anything. Chocolate tasted like red meat and then my taste was gone along with my smell,” said Frankeny.

Frankeny, a dietitian, says no foods seemed appetizing. Her senses of taste and smell were distorted even as they returned a couple of weeks later.

“That was the worst part of the illness, I think, compared to everything,” said Frankeny.

Other patients, like Brittney Hansen, are experiencing long-term parosmia. Hansen says she lost her sense of taste and smell about a week after her first symptoms started in March. Her husband was also hospitalized with the virus.

“I think I was overwhelmed with everything else so it was like, ‘Oh — there’s another thing to deal with,'” said Hansen.

Nine months later, Hansen has regained an altered sense of taste and smell that prevents her from eating most hot foods and liquids.

“It’s like something dead and horrible and it makes you want to vomit. Coffee and steak smell like dead, rotting flesh,” said Hansen.

Hansen has tried using scent therapy with essential oils to retrain her senses. She says the side effect has forced her to cut out meat from her diet.

“It’s hard for me to cook for my family. My husband and son are big meat-eaters so I sometimes have to wear a mask,” said Hansen.

In a year where so many have suffered, Hansen says she’s almost gotten used to her new way of life and is unsure if her senses will ever return to normal.

“Eating is a social thing. I’ve never been a big chef but I do enjoy eating well and I just feel like that experience has changed,” said Hansen.

Beckham says there isn’t enough information on these symptoms to understand the long-term impact. He advises anyone experiencing similar symptoms to stay in close contact with their doctor and monitor any changes.

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