'I physically can’t do it': For some, COVID-induced parosmia means facing end of a career
As people head back into the office after years at home, those with smell disorders are struggling to handle a new wave of hideous smells. Some are wondering how they'll be able to work at all.
CarrieAnn Young was passing the cafeteria at her job in early March when the smell hit her: roadkill.
The 27-year-old insurance claims adjuster stopped abruptly. Panic paralyzed her.
Young had been so excited to head back to the office that she hadn’t even thought of the one thing that would almost assuredly make the workplace a nightmare: her sense of smell.
Since catching COVID-19 in November, Young has struggled with the invisible sense most take for granted. First, she got anosmia, the inability to smell anything. Not her morning cold brew coffee with cream and five Splenda. Not the cinnamon raisin, gluten-free bagels she liked. Nothing.
Then, three or four weeks later, Young got parosmia, a condition that warps typical scents into fetid odors. Her fiance, who didn’t smoke, smelled like an ashtray. Her soaps and lotions reeked of rotten fruit and wet dog.
Her nose, which had once gifted her the smell of her children’s bubble baths and her father’s juicy pot roast, has become the enemy. She can’t cook without getting sick, eat dinner with her family or socialize with friends.
Meanwhile, her sense of taste, so connected to smell, is also distorted. Most foods smack of cigarettes or chemicals. She barely eats, has lost 10 pounds and is constantly hungry.
COVID-19 has already destroyed so much of her life. Now it is threatening to hurt her career.
“It hadn’t even crossed my mind that this would be an issue,” Young said.
Researchers say as many as 1.6 million people have olfactory disorders after contracting COVID-19. And, because of that, the sense has entered the mainstream conversation about the long-term side effects of the virus. Experts are delving deep into how and why the virus hits the olfactory system so hard and possible ways to fix the problem.
But right now, there is no surefire cure. And as people head back into the office after years at home, those with smell disorders are struggling to handle a new wave of hideous smells.
Coffee. Perfumes. Food. Body odor.
Experts say the condition affects everyone differently because smell is such a personal experience, but there are some commonalities in the complaints. Coffee and meat are among the biggest offenders.
Young, who lives in Sauquoit, N.Y., said she had to turn down a new job with a $25,000 raise because she had to be in an office and feared she’d be nauseated by unpleasant smells.
While the world may just be catching on to the perils of the workplace for people with damaged smell, Chrissi Kelly knows all about it.
Kelly, founder of AbScent – a U.K.-based charity devoted to eliminating smell disorders and supporting those who have them – hears from many people about how their work life is being affected. But before COVID-19, few people cared about smell disorders.
In 2019, AbScent interacted with about 1,500 people on Facebook, Kelly said. Now they serve about 85,000 on various platforms.
“Smell is still the least valued of the senses,” Kelly said. “Even people who have the problem have difficulty accepting the fact that it’s changing their lives.”
After COVID-19, parosmia can get better
Michael De la Garza has no trouble accepting that.
The 28-year-old Texas-native, who now teaches English in Saltillo, Mexico, lost his smell to COVID-19 in January 2021. First, he couldn’t smell his cologne, his toothpaste or deodorant. He even held a bottle of bleach to his nose. Nothing.
Eventually some of his smell came back – along with parosmia. His taste was off, too, marring his food with the flavor of chemicals.
Even the scent of boiling water – a thing that most would say ought to smell like nothing – repelled him.
“The steam is like a combination of sewage and acetone,” De la Garza said. “I can’t put my finger on it.”
De la Garza’s job involves going to factories and businesses to meet with his students. But when he went back to work, the stink was unbearable. The chemicals and cleaning products overwhelmed him.
“It’s nauseating,” he said. “I physically can’t do it.”
After two months of gagging on those smells at work, De la Garza couldn’t take it anymore. He started working from home, teaching his students online. But even the markers for his dry erase board made him physically ill. He would push through, get a nasty headache and need to lie down after class.
For De la Garza, some days are better than others. Mango is mango again. Green tea is weird. Scented toilet paper is out.
But he knows things can get better. Like bacon. Once it stunk of acetone and dirt. Now it’s normal. He smells it. He tastes it. He loves it.
“Bacon, oh my God,” De la Garza said in a video call with USA TODAY. He put hand to his face and closed his eyes. “Bacon is amazing. Bacon goes with everything.”
CarrieAnn Young isn’t feeling that optimism.
Earlier this year, she’d been excited to head back into the office, to actually see her coworkers in person. But as they headed in, one by one, the odor got worse. The scents were so warped and amplified that she had to run to the bathroom to compose herself.
“Everyone’s smell and their perfumes and just the smell of the building, it smells like dead animal, like roadkill,” Young said. “It makes it just impossible. I struggle at work. It’s so bad.”
Once, during a meeting with her company’s chief executive officer, she had to leave the room because they were in a space with pastries.
Recently she has started going to the office more frequently and has managed to get through the day. Her co-workers, who are aware of her condition, don't eat around her or get too close. She can use an office to be alone if she wants.
But her Celiac disease has flared up at times, she says, giving her fierce stomachaches because she has been eating foods with gluten as she tries to find something palatable.
“I am always miserable because I am hungry,” Young said. “I am so hungry.”
Can COVID-19 smell loss qualify for disability?
The Biden administration recently ordered a new national plan to address the long-term effects of COVID-19, including additional assessments of how the government determines who is eligible for financial benefits. But whether people will need disability benefits or will even qualify remains an open question.
Under typical conditions, getting disability benefits is no easy feat, said Rick Glassman, director of advocacy at the Disability Law Center in Boston. People have to prove they can’t work. They need a medical diagnosis. And the disability has to be ongoing.
People are often rejected on the first try or even after multiple reviews, Glassman said. Many never get it at all.
"This system is way, way more difficult than the public thinks it is,” he said. “The gist is, people believe that these benefits are given when anyone is dealing with a significant health issue or disability issue in their lives, and that is far from the case.”
Is there a cure for loss of smell?
Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms are filled with hotly debated potential cures, most of which have little to no scientific evidence behind them. Young has tried some of them – like eating burnt oranges mixed with brown sugar – but hasn’t had much luck.
Adding to her stress is her wedding in July. Will she be able to eat her 10-tier vanilla cake with white buttercream icing? Will she be able to hug her guests without getting sick?
“I’m afraid at my wedding I’m not going to be able to stand being at my own reception,” she said.
The whole thing is exhausting, depressing and painful, worse than if her smell had simply never returned at all.
“I would pay anything to just have no taste or smell ever again,” she said. “There’s no answer that says I won’t have it the rest of my life.”
Ahmad Sedaghat, a doctor at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine who specializes in nose and sinus problems, believes regular “smell training” can help.
The biggest thing, Sedaghat said, is to incorporate that training into daily life. If coffee is repulsive, people need to breathe it in while remembering what it used to smell like. The same with anything else that has become offensive. The technique has to be continuous to be effective, and it can take months or years to see the full results, but it does work in many cases, he said.
Employers, meanwhile, need to be sensitive to those with smell disorders, said AbScent's Kelly. When people first started returning to the workplace earlier this year, the charity put out a press release asking employers to give people coffee-free areas. Coffee, she said, is a major trigger for parosmics.
People also need to be able to sit in food-free zones, she said. Microwaves are notorious for spreading strong smells because of the heating process, and things like curries are bound to make some people sick.
Employers have to start thinking about smell the way they now view smoke-free zones. Because for people with parosmia, just sitting in the office can be pure torture.
“It’s just going to be a stink bomb,” Kelly said.