About the author
I was working as a videographer in Europe when I caught Covid-19 during the first wave of the pandemic. I was 25 and adored my life but on March 21, 2020 I woke up with a fever and dizziness. Two days later, I tested positive. Numerous symptoms ensued, predominantly neurological, and one of the most troubling and long lasting was losing my sense of taste.– Female, Scottish, Tāhuna/Queenstown
A brief explanation of Taste Loss from Covid-19
Before Covid-19, it was rare for people to have taste loss that lasted for a long time. Usually, it happened after head injuries, surgery and some neurological illnesses such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s.
The Covid-19 pandemic created a new health crisis, and part of that involved millions grappling with losing their sense of smell and taste (often at the same time). This study, conducted by The British Medical Journal, found roughly 5% of people who reported initial changes to their sense of smell or taste during the acute infection stage still had dysfunction six months later.
There are a few variations of loss of taste. A total loss of taste is medically known as ageusia. A diminished sense of taste is known as hypogeusia, and a distorted sense of taste (often resulting in very unpleasant tastes) is known as dysgeusia.
In my experience
Ageusia was a bizarre sensation. It wasn’t simply a muting of the sense, such as when you get a cold, but a total erasure of any sensation at all. Pizza became cardboard. Ramen may as well have been a bowl of boiling water. I spooned hot sauce on my tongue, but my palette only registered thick liquid.
Initially, I wasn’t worried about this symptom and assumed it would disappear in a week or so. Instead, I experienced zero taste for two months. Eating became a deeply depressive chore, something I did for survival but that gave me no pleasure.
In time, my basic umami palette returned. This meant I could distinguish between salty, sour, sweet and spicy, but still couldn’t detect any true individual flavours. It took more than a year for my full palette to recover.
Loss of taste had knock-on effects such as taking away my passion for cooking. Every recipe I read reminded me that I wouldn’t be able to taste the finished meal. It’s hard to realise just how frequently we discuss food and drink in conversation until you lose the ability to have any meaningful experience and contribution, along with the sense itself. In normal circumstances, anticipating a meal is as exciting as the experience itself.
I became isolated from so many everyday moments because I could no longer taste. When my friend hosted a Mexican dinner party, I sat in silence as I couldn’t taste the enchiladas and pozole. I avoided my employer’s beer-tasting team-building event, as it seemed futile to go. A birthday cake my friend bought me suddenly became meaningless. Past, present and future also lose their flavour when this sense has gone.
One year after losing my sense of taste completely, I regained about 95% of it. I am now far more indulgent with food. There’s a scene in Modern Family where Mitch and Cam discuss whether they should open an expensive bottle of wine or save it for a special occasion. They resolve the situation by agreeing not to delay life’s pleasures. I couldn’t agree more.
What others say loss of taste is like
Living with ageusia or hypogeusia deeply affects people’s wellbeing. Tilly, a colleague who experienced long-term taste loss from Covid in 2022, told me her mental health has declined: “I was surprised how life-altering it turned out to be.” She says it’s not just the symptom itself that’s troubling, but the flow-on effects. For example, she can no longer host dinner parties since she can’t sample her cooking. “I’d say food and eating comprises about 25% of what we do in a day and suddenly that’s gone for me.”
Another struggle is people who experience a ‘rewiring’ of their sense of taste, and develop an aversion to eating certain foods. Anaïs Saint-André Loughran, a French cheesemonger, developed dysgeusia after her Covid infection. She told Eater, “I could barely eat food. Everything tasted like sewage.”
A big impact of taste loss is on people who rely on the sense for their careers, such as sommeliers and chefs. England-based Suriya Bala, a food and wine writer who lost her taste in 2021, told The Guardian, “I can now taste the top and bottom end but all the middle, the nuances and perfumed notes which is what wine is all about, it’s all gone. It’s a really empty experience.”
Almost everyone comments on their surprise at the extreme impact of losing their senses of smell and taste.
What I and others have tried
- Avoid heavily processed foods, as the chemicals increase distortion.
- Some people find zinc supplements can āwhina | help bring their taste back.
- Loss of taste can lead to malnutrition because eating becomes a chore. Make a conscious effort to get all your nutrients and eat a balanced, filling diet.
- Maintain hope for recovery – many people spontaneously get their sense of taste back, even after two years.
How others can help
- Don’t try and solve the problem for us – most of us have tried almost every tip and trick to try get our taste back.
- If you are cooking for us, it’s helpful if food has lots of different textures and strong umami flavours (salt, sweet, sour, spicy).
The exact way that Covid-19 causes taste loss is not entirely clear, but one leading theory suggests the virus damages the olfactory bulb. The primary function of olfactory nerves is to detect smells and process flavours, which means any damage could result in ongoing taste loss.
Another theory is that Covid-19 replicates on the taste buds, which disrupts the regeneration of cells and causes ongoing taste problems.
How Loss of Taste progressed for me
Infection–2 months: zero taste.
Months 2–11: basic umami flavours return.
Month 11: flavour palette returns, but many flavours remain distorted.
Two years on: 95% normal. Only some foods, such as uncooked onion and garlic, are heavily distorted/inedible.
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