I first encountered the word mitochondria about 20 years ago while exploring it while reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series. A precocious six-year-old boy discovers a dragon in his garden to warn him of unseen intruders that are making him ill and ravaging the power source of his cells – my-toe-con-dree-uh. The beast appears and the boy’s life changes forever.
I’ve heard that word no fewer than a hundred times this year, more than I ever expected in my job as a beauty and wellness editor. As it turns out, my cells are also at risk due to COVID-19 – and with them my sense of smell. As I write this, I’m breathing on an oxygen mask, surrounded by medical equipment and serious white-coated doctors shuffling through a quiet lab. I’m almost a week into a long COVID treatment program in the Austrian mountains, my final stop on a healing journey that could all be for nothing.
I caught the delta strain of COVID in August 2021 and my sense of smell and taste was gone for months. As a lover of fragrances and an avid home cook, I was relieved when those senses began to creep in again. But on a cold January morning, I woke up to the smell of something burning. I thought I was hallucinating (or pregnant, despite all the tests coming back negative), and it took me a week to realize the culprit: the few cloves of garlic that lived on my kitchen counter. I realized that this acrid smell wasn’t limited to a rotten lightbulb. It was all allium ingredients in everything I tried to eat, or so it seemed. Also a pity: tap water smelled of bleach; I smelled gasoline even though there wasn’t any. My own body odor was undetectable, as if a stranger had worn my clothes. Put simply, my senses were on fire. My personal fire-breathing dragon alerted me to something insidious: my body hadn’t properly healed from COVID-19.
Treating, let alone curing, long-term damage caused by a virus that the medical community does not yet fully understand requires an open mind. As with most stories about dragons, this meant I had to embark on a quest to explore all the possibilities of therapy. I ordered smell training kits to stimulate my smell, trolled TikTok and (slightly more reliable) clinical research for supplements that showed a whiff of promise, and tracked my progress (or lack thereof) by eliminating any distorted smells in my pantry and my scent recorded collection.
“We use our sense of smell not only to enjoy beautiful things, but to protect ourselves.”
Like many others who suffered from these symptoms, I waited months to see an ear, nose and throat specialist. The feedback wasn’t what I was hoping for: I received a jab-jab-cross diagnosis of parosmia (distortion of smell), phantosmia (smelling things that aren’t there), and anosmia (partial or complete loss of smell). All three are now recognized as symptoms of Long COVID, a name that masks a plethora of after-effects previously healthy people experience after recovering from the virus.
The medical community can only offer theories at this point as to why these effects manifest and persist. Erich Voigt, MD, clinical associate professor of otolaryngology at NYU Langone Health, says researchers are studying the human brain and olfactory pathway (the complex system of receptors and nerves that allow us to smell) in COVID-19 survivors and Examine the deceased (through autopsies) to find a possible cause and treatment for parosmia. The science is nuanced, but one theory as to why we develop parosmia after anosmia says Dr. Voigt, is self-preservation. “We use our sense of smell not just to enjoy beautiful things, but to protect ourselves,” he explains. “When you smell a poison, you know you don’t have to go near it. If you smell smoke and fire, you are aware of the danger. So when our brain tries to heal that injury, it errs on the side of interpretation [smells] dangerous to save yourself.”
Will my symptoms ever completely go away? dr Voigt says we can’t know for sure, and other than smell training and intranasal steroids trying to reduce local inflammation (neither of which worked for me), there’s no proven way to reverse the damage. Global research is ongoing and Dr. Voigt has developed an app that “includes smell retraining” and uses visual cues to tap into smell memories to help patients regain lost smells. “It’s a special sense for a reason,” he notes. “There is no separation between psychology and physiology.”
This had become obvious: Months after my trip I was constantly nauseous, had headaches and was downright depressed. My dragon followed me home from work, flapping its wings in front of every pizza place and halal cart in Manhattan. It breathed ash into my perfumes and subway cars stuffed with stinking passengers. It wedged itself between my partner and I in bed and blew smoke rings into the darkness. I spent most of my day in anger, and my sanity suffered as a result. When I heard that a friend of a friend had been cured of her parosmia by Chinese medicine practitioner Helen Law, PhD, I asked to be put on her waiting list. according to dr Law, acupuncture is an excellent alternative therapy for nearly all long-COVID symptoms because the practice of Chinese medicine treats the whole-body inflammation that COVID-19 is notorious for.
“I target the inflamed nerves that are causing the smell and taste disorder,” she explains. But her sessions take the traditional practice one step further: After Dr. Law had inserted needles all over my scalp, face, and limbs, she connected the needles to a machine to send electrical impulses of different frequencies to rehabilitate damaged nerves. Electroacupuncture was not painful, but I cried at almost every session due to the emotional release the practice can provide. Aside from treating my symptoms (I started to feel gradual improvements), Dr. Law made sure I wasn’t over-emotional. While I appreciated the advice I’d received so far, this was the first time a medical professional had confirmed to me how deep Long COVID’s mind-body connection runs.