This week’s COVID Catch-up: What’s that smell?


Sense of smell can be absent, distorted after COVID

Carrie Steinweg (photo provided)

COVID Catch-up is a 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

LANSING, Ill. (May 12, 2021) – One of the common symptoms of COVID-19 is the loss of taste and smell. Both of these occurred when the virus initially hit me early last November. I had remembered a friend telling me that she knew she had COVID when she tried to smell some fresh herbs and they had no scent.

Losing and regaining smell

Although I had been very sick for a few days with symptoms that all pointed to COVID, I still wasn’t convinced that I had it. I would randomly pick up a candle or a tube of hand lotion and inhale. As long as I could still smell it, I stayed in denial. But the day I sniffed a new vanilla candle and there was no scent to it, I figured I couldn’t deny it anymore. Along with the absence of smell went the absence of taste.

Each was completely gone for about two to three weeks before I slowly regained the ability to smell and taste. It’s been harder, though, to smell things. Early on I had to really inhale, sometimes two or three times, to get a faint whiff of something. It’s gotten stronger over time, but sometimes it just seems dulled down a little — like it’s there, but restricted. A flower smells more faint, like it’s inside a plastic bag or a suitcase and not fully fragrant.

Phantom fragrances

But that’s not the end of the smell story. Lately there have been more random smells that pop up that just don’t make sense. It seems I’m not alone. Many people who’ve had COVID are reporting long term issues with their sense of smell as they continue to recover. Anosmia is a complete loss of smell, hyposmia is a decreased sense of smell, and parosmia is an alteration of the sense of smell. And then there’s phantosmia, which is when you experience olfactory hallucinations or smell things that aren’t really there.

Luckily, when I experience phantom smells, they are short lived. It’s stuff I’ve smelled before, but it doesn’t match the surroundings. I can be in my car and smell rotten citrus fruit. I’ll suddenly smell dirty baby diapers (when I’m no where near a baby) or a sewer smell or rotten meat or a musty/moldy smell or burning plastic. I’ll ask whoever is near me if they smell what I smell and they never do. It’s usually fleeting and only lasts a few seconds or minutes. Sometimes it will come and go a few times throughout a day and then be gone. And it doesn’t happen all that often — once, twice, maybe three times a week.

It’s not always horrible smells, but it just throws you off when you smell something, but should really smell something else. I grabbed a handful of peanuts the other day and as I was eating them I was smelling nail polish remover. Another day I was standing over a grill cooking steaks and I was smelling peanut butter.

It’s one of the less serious effects of COVID, but one that can be annoying and disconcerting. It’s just another thing that chisels away at your quality of life as you are recovering from the virus. It’s something you can deal with, but is definitely a distraction and can surely be a joy-killer.




  1. Thank, Carrie, for the wonderful information! I was beginning to think I was losing control of my nose! Really appreciate your insights – so very helpful to all of us.

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