Aviva Epstein is an 11-year-old foodie with a sophisticated palette. Her favorite dishes range from escargot, to medium-rare ribeye steak, to spicy Korean noodles she sautees herself.
But two months after recovering from a mild case of COVID-19, Aviva’s taste buds went haywire.
“I couldn’t eat anything. I would run to the garbage, gag, and spit out anything I would eat,” Aviva told NBC New York. “I would eat pasta. I love it. It tasted gross, like rotten beef or rotten pork.”
Aviva is one of several children in the area who have developed problems with taste and smell weeks or even months after having COVID-19, according to her pediatrician, Dr. Lynn Sugarman of Tenafly.
Dr. Sugarman said this is raising new concerns because it is different from the more widespread loss of smell that many patients experience with the onset of COVID-19, cases which usually resolve more quickly.
In these new cases, symptoms are developing late or lingering — sometimes coming and going — along with anxiety about whether they will ever fully go away, Dr. Sugarman said.
“The thinking is the virus itself affects the nerve of smell,” says Michael Rothschild, an ENT specialist with Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine.
Dr. Rothschild says coronaviruses have been known to cause a reduction in the ability to smell or distortion of smells, as well as alterations in taste known as Anosmia, Parosmia and Parageusta, respectively.
He says ordinarily, about two thirds of patients will recover fully, but because COVID-19 is new, it’s difficult to predict how long these symptoms will last and if the rate of recovery will be the same.
“By affecting the accuracy of the olfactory system, it’s changing the brain’s interpretation of what something tastes like,” Dr. Rothschild said.
He says some patients can benefit from smell therapy, which involves intentionally sniffing certain scents while thinking about memories associated with them, in order to retrain the brain.
Twice a day, college student Tsvi Merczynski-Hait holds bottles of lemon, clove, rose and eucalyptus essential oils close to his nose. Unlike Aviva, whose sense of smell and taste are distorted, Tsvi lost his sense of smell completely.
He noticed it when he couldn’t smell the spices on his chicken, a few weeks after he had recovered from COVID-19. When Tsvi had the virus, he was bedridden for two weeks with fever but never noticed a problem with his sense of smell until later.
“I felt there was a safety aspect to it if I can’t smell smoke or I can’t smell gas. That could cause serious problems in the future,” Tsvi told NBC New York. He said he told his ENT doctor he would do anything possible to get back to normal.
A report in the May 20 issue of The Journal of the American Medical Association says “the efficacy of available treatments for COVID-19 related olfactory dysfunction is unknown," as is the proportion of patients who develop persistent long term olfactory dysfunction.
The JAMA report also suggests there is some research from Italy that shows COVID-19 is causing these senses to be impaired more frequently in young people and in women.
Aviva says she is feeling better this week, and hopes the worst is behind her.
“I just go hungry for a few days at a time and I can’t eat sometimes, it’s so bad,” she said.