John Myers column: It’s the little smells in life I miss most
For nearly two months now, coffee tastes like tea and tea tastes like hot water with my sense of smell and taste gone missing.
I was walking the dog in the little patch of woods near our house the other night when I broke a tiny branch off a balsam tree and held it up to my nose.
There is perhaps nothing as sweet smelling as freshly cut balsam, and even in winter there sould be an aroma there. But I wasn’t getting any of it.
I stoked the wood stove the other day and then walked outside to get another load of wood. I absolutely love the smell of woodsmoke wafting out of a chimney on a cold day. Sometimes it's so intense I think I can identify the type of wood burning. I could see the smoke, bent by the wind, heading my way. But I couldn't smell a thing.
One of the great treasures of owning a Labrador retriever, other than occasionally pulling stuck things out of their rear end and paying a vet to remove porcupine quills from their mouth, is pressing your nose into their coat and taking a big whiff. If you are a duck hunter, the smell brings back smiles.
But it ain’t happening for me. Not horseradish nor Vicks Vaporub or even onions sauteing in a pan.
It’s been nearly two months since the positive test result arrived by email. Got over the serious stuff pretty fast: A week of a bad cold and flu symptoms and some GI issues. But the taste and smell thing has lingered. I don’t mean to complain (although I am very good at it) and I realize how lucky I am to have come out the other side of COVID-19 with everything else intact except my senses of smell and taste. But I do miss them.
I miss waking up every morning to the automatic coffee pot that starts brewing before I’m out of bed. That smell, floating up to the bedroom, is usually the first thing I sense every morning. But not now, not yet anyway. I can’t smell coffee at all, and it mostly tastes like hot water, or maybe tea. It’s all the same.
While my sniffer has pretty consistently been nonfunctional, the taste thing comes and goes. On most days, I couldn’t tell the difference between a Bent Paddle and a Bud Light. But the other night, while watching a hockey game on TV, that hoppy sweetness of a good IPA came through for just a moment. Then it was gone again. But I’ll keep trying, testing for progress.
Most things now are either sweet or salty, with little other definition. I catch myself remembering tastes as I chew food, but realize I’m only fooling myself. I slow-cooked a salmon fillet on the pellet grill the other night with a dry rub of brown sugar, coarse sea salt, black pepper, cumin, cayenne pepper and other spices. Normally, the smoke rising from the grill would have me salivating. But nothing registered in the olfactory area.
Worse, the only taste from the salmon was salty. Love it or hate it, few foods should have more flavor and aroma as salmon. But this might as well been walleye or tilapia or a Filet-O-Fish sandwich. I couldn't tell the difference.
Scientists aren’t sure why COVID-19 patients often lose their taste and smell. One theory developed at Harvard Medical School found that cells that support sensory neurons in the nose — known as sustentacular cells — are probably what the virus is infecting. But a research team in Italy found that smell and taste loss occur at the same time as an increase in inflamation, such as leaky blood vessels, in the olfactory bulbs of people who had had COVID-19.
Most people, 72%, report regaining their smell within a month, and 84% got their taste back in a month or less. But researchers say some people have long-term and possibly even permanent sensory loss, possibly because olfactory neurons are rewiring as they recover or because they are permanently damaged.
It’s not all bad, of course. I can’t smell the cat box, or the dog deposit I pick up from alongside the trail, which is good. And not being able to smell the teenager's ski racing gear bag is probably a plus.
But I want my smell back, at least by spring and summer. Taste, too. One of my all-time favorite smells is that first scent of freshly cut grass in May, just so long as someone else is doing the mowing. It never smells as good when I’m mowing.
I want to be able to smell the scent of that first dusty rain in spring and red pines at campsites and pipe smoke on fishing trips and the smell of a landing net after you catch a big, slimy pike. And I want to be able to taste lemonade and ice cream and the butter that drips down between the kernels on a piece of freshly picked Minnesota sweet corn.
Right now, though, it’s still all hot water and Bud Light.