What happened to Pitz is not unique. Of more than 4,000 respondents to a multilingual, international study of people with recent smell loss published in Chemical Senses in June, 7 percent reported parosmia, or odor distortion. Facebook support groups dedicated to parosmia and phantosmia, the clinical names for specific smell disorders, have grown drastically in the past few months. Instead of a scentless world, an increasing number of people who lost their sense of smell because of Covid-19 are complaining that things just don’t smell right.
They no longer wake up and can’t smell the coffee; because of parosmia, their coffee smells like burning rubber or sewage. Parosmia is most often an unpleasant smell, a distortion of an actual odor, making many foods smell and taste revolting. Phantosmia is more random, occurring without a scent trigger, uninvited and unwanted. Phantosmias, which can be fleeting or linger, are also usually foul smells, often cigarette smoke or burning wood—or for one poster on Reddit, “everything smells like a more disgusting version of Spaghetti O’s.”
Zara M. Patel, the director of endoscopic skull base surgery at the Stanford School of Medicine, has been studying olfactory dysfunction for more than a decade. It’s not unusual, she says, for smell distortions to accompany or follow smell loss.