This week’s COVID Catch-up: When a food writer can’t taste

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Longtime food writer Carrie Steinweg shares about her lack of taste due to COVID

COVID Catch-up is a new weekly column featuring Lansing Journal journalist Carrie Steinweg’s personal experience with COVID-19 and things she learned from others who shared their experiences. Subscribe today to make sure you don’t miss any COVID Catch-ups. Last week’s column is available here.

By Carrie Steinweg
COVID
Carrie Steinweg (photo provided)

LANSING, Ill. (January 27, 2021) – Just before I was hit by COVID-19, I watched a video with my kids on TikTok where a 20-something guy said he had tested positive for COVID. He was pretty much symptom-free except that he had lost his sense of taste. It’s a common symptom among many people who been affected by the virus. According to Vanderbilt University Medical Center, loss of taste and smell can affect up to 80% of those who test positive and it is even happening in those with milder cases.

In the video, the young man grabs an onion, takes a huge bite and declares, “Nothing.” He then tried a couple other things that would surely cause a very strong reaction, but didn’t. I think one was lemon juice and the other might have been a whole head of garlic. He didn’t even flinch as he put these foods in his mouth. We watched in disbelief.

A disconcerting flavorlessness

But soon I was able to relate. Loss of taste was one of the many symptoms I had as I struggled with COVID late last year. It was well over a month before anything tasted normal again. I had a flavorless Thanksgiving, but the taste buds were functioning by the time Christmas arrived.

For someone who has been writing about food for 20 years and running a food blog for 10 years, it was quite an inconvenient symptom. It wasn’t one that was life threatening, but as someone who depends on their sense of taste for part of their livelihood, it was a bit disconcerting.

At first it didn’t seem like a big deal. I lost my sense of taste around the same time I was having nausea and loss of appetite. I wasn’t even sure at that point that I had COVID. There have been times I have had a bad cold or when seasonal allergies have been in full swing and all that congestion prevents you from tasting foods the way you should. So, it wasn’t completely unfamiliar. It also didn’t matter much that I couldn’t taste because I wasn’t eating. But it didn’t come back right away.

The appetite did come back and my grumbling stomach would let me know that I needed to eat a meal, even if it was no more satisfying than eating a piece of cardboard. Food had no flavor. None. I did finally start getting satisfaction from not the flavor, but the temperature of foods. Having a constant sore throat for days, it felt good to eat warm soup or cold ice cream.The cold or hot sensation helped my throat feel a little better.

A gradual, warped return to taste

When my sense of taste started to return, it was in a very warped way. It was like the taste receptors in my mouth were only allowing one of the modalities to emerge at a time. The first to return was “spicy.” But it wasn’t a normal spicy flavor. If I ate something with just a couple pepper flakes or a few drops of hot sauce, my mouth was on fire. And for the rest of the day it felt as if it had been burned with a torch and was covered in blisters. I still couldn’t taste a cookie or a pretzel or a slice of apple. I could only taste something if it was spicy—and then it wasn’t just a little bit spicy. It was a scorching heat.

After a couple days of tasting only spiciness, it shifted to “salty.” I would eat one potato chip and instead of getting a little hint of salt, it was greatly intensified to where it tasted like someone poured a bowl of salt into my mouth. A couple more days and I was getting the “sweet,” but everything was over-the-top sweet. It started to tame down after about a week of this intensity and selective sense of taste and I could taste things again, but they didn’t taste as good as they should and were just dull. It’s now back and food tastes like it should and I’m so glad.

I’ve read on Harvard Medical School’s website and from other sources that this is a symptom that may not come back easily, if at all. So to be able to enjoy food again is a huge blessing.

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