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Explained: What is parosmia, an odor distortion associated with COVID-19?

Parosmia is a medical term used to describe a condition in which affected individuals experience “distortions of the sense of smell”.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
March 23, 2021 2:12:11 pm
A woman smells a tree in New York (The New York Times: Brian Harkin, File)

While loss of smell (anosmia) and taste is a well known symptom of COVID-19, some people may experience parosmia, which is characterised by a change in perception of odours.

Some other unusual symptoms associated with the disease include COVID-toe and COVID-tongue, which is an inflammatory disorder that usually appears on the top and sides of the tongue.

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What is parosmia?

According to Fifth Sense, a charity for people affected with smell and taste disorders, parosmia is a medical term used to describe a condition in which affected individuals experience “distortions of the sense of smell”.

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A person with parosmia is able to detect certain odours, but they might experience the smell of certain things as different and often unpleasant. For instance, to someone with parosmia, coffee may smell like burnt toast. Fifth Sense says that these unpleasant smells are often described by people as being similar to that of chemicals, burning, faeces, rotting flesh and mould.

What causes parosmia?

AbScent, a charity registered in England and Wales which provides support to people affected by smell disorders, says that this abnormality is typically experienced by those people who are recovering their sense of smell following loss from a virus or an injury.

Further, the group says that parosmia is a temporary condition and is not harmful in itself. Even so, it can continue for several weeks, which means that affected individuals may have to change their eating patterns, diets and avoid foods that trigger the certain odours. “It can affect relationships with others, and cause feelings of low mood or depression,” AbScent says.

Some common triggers of parosmia include roasted, toasted or grilled foods, coffee, onions, chocolate, garlic and eggs. It is likely that parosmia manifests itself due to the damage caused to the olfactory neurons when “the delicate and complex structure in the nose is attacked by a virus.”

COVID-19 and parosmia

Research published in the journal Nature recently says that parosmia has been associated with a high proportion of patients with post-infectious loss. Significantly, this study reported that nearly half of its COVID-19 cohort reported parosmia, which was persistent at least till six months in the majority of the cases. The study says that parosmia might be a positive sign and may reflect the recovery of the olfactory sensory neurons.

While there is no cure or medication for this abnormality, individuals may find some relief with “smell training”. According to the Smell and Taste Clinic at the James Paget Hospital, UK if parosmia or phantosmia (sensation of an odour being present when it is not) becomes more disabling than the loss of smell or is the only symptom, then the person should be given specific treatment such as using nasal drops or tablets. in

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