I’ve recently suffered Covid-19 and it got me thinking about the sensory side of coffee, given the taste buds and olfactory system have decided to pack up and die. As of writing this, it is 10 days since my flavour and scent perception faded and 14 since the first symptoms started, those being fatigue, headaches and brain fog.
In a way, it’s rather welcome. I’ve neglected the blog for a long time due to a mix of other commitments, laziness and the feeling of lacking anything interesting to say. Now there is an experience to share and a degree of empathy for others which can only be understood through that experience.
First and foremost, it is easy to take our sensory perception for granted. I can’t imagine working full time in coffee right now and being handicapped in such a way, even for 10 days (and probably much longer. Some people report not recovering for 3 months!). Of course, people with Covid-19 shouldn’t be working during the early infection period. But after 10-14 days from the onset of symptoms, in the UK, people can legally return to work. For some, this means returning without their ability to taste and smell.
To outline how this has affected me so far:
1-4 days – No sense of smell or flavour perception at all. Even my basic tastes were dulled, with difficulty picking up bitter and sour tastes, and no sweet sensation. Black coffee tasted like poison. A lightly roasted coffee had no perceptible sourness and was like flavourless, slightly bitter water.
4-6 days – A very faint sense of smell returns and sucking a lemon is more obviously sour, but also sweet. The sense strengthens over each day, yet still no flavour. Coffee is still disgusting but freshly roasted coffee beans now smells like the old, stale, coffee oil smell you get on poorly washed plastic (like a very old Aeropress).
6-10 days – Some flavour perception is creeping back, though very faint. Coffee starts to taste more balanced rather than just bitter, and is more pleasant as each day passes. However, I feel slightly nauseous after finishing a cup. Black tea on the other hand, is delicious. Even the basic stuff. It tastes fruity, floral and complex, almost like jasmine tea. In such a state you must take the pleasure wherever it comes.
Retraining the senses
Coffee still doesn’t taste good. Why bother drinking it then? The hope is that the flavour and smell receptors and neurons are retrained, regrown or whatever needs to happen. Throughout this period I have not passively accepted the loss of these senses, and this is the interesting bit. I read that smell and taste must be retrained for it to recover more quickly. Unfortunately, it’s not something I can verify by testing against a control; I can only recover once under these exact circumstances. But the hope drives the effort in attempting a quicker recovery.
To do this, I smelt Vicks medicine, different types of vinegar, soy sauce, Tiger Balm, chilli oil and perfumes (and even smelly salmon) several times a day and all one after the other. I spent a few minutes doing this 4-5 times a day. For the first few days I smelt nothing, not even a tiny response to the pungency of Tiger Balm, as if my nose wasn’t there. Following the summary timeline above, I slowly started picking up smells, with Vicks and Tiger Balm providing the first scents of relief.
The relief was real. The uncertainty of those senses returning when you can’t even smell oud is discomforting. Eating was a boring chore and I felt full quickly. It’s a depressing feeling, making life feel more like a simulation. I’ve lost these senses before for a day maximum with the common cold, but the joy of eating that comes with flavour and smell is more sorely missed as the days roll by.
For any scientific explanation relating to the above, I’ll leave that to the qualified to say. That is, I don’t know why this happens or why it lasts so long.
Finally, I’ve heard other stories and tips for regaining these senses and they are things I can’t vouch for. Some people recommend taking zinc and Vitamin D supplements, and even capsules of oregano oil. The more outlandish is that an LSD trip can bring them about almost instantly, although, because I write this blog and enjoy my freedom, DO NOT TAKE LSD FOR ANY REASON.
It would be good to see other people’s experiences in the comments, especially from those who have to use their nose and taste buds for a living. Sharing is caring.
For now, stay safe and away from Covid.