I first encountered the word mitochondria some 20 years ago, when I sounded it out while reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time series. A precocious boy of six discovers a dragon in the garden, which is there to warn him of invisible invaders that are making him sick, ravaging the energy source of his cells — my-toe-con-dree-uh. The beast appears, and the boy’s life is changed for good.
I’ve heard that word no less than a hundred times this year, more than I ever expected to in my line of work as a beauty and wellness editor. As it turns out, my cells are also in peril — and with them, my sense of smell — due to COVID-19. As I write this, I’m breathing with an oxygen mask, surrounded by medical machinery and solemn doctors in white coats shuffling across a serene lab. I’m nearly a week into a Long COVID treatment program in the Austrian mountains, my last stop on a healing journey that could all be for naught.
I caught the Delta strain of COVID in August 2021, and my senses of smell and taste disappeared for months. As a fragrance lover and avid home cook, I was relieved when these senses began to creep back. But one frigid January morning, I woke to the smell of something burning. I thought I was hallucinating (or pregnant, though all the tests read negative), and it took a week for me to realize the culprit: the few cloves of garlic living on my kitchen counter. I realized this acrid scent wasn’t limited to one putrid bulb. It was all alliums, ingredients in everything I tried to eat, or so it seemed. Also amiss: Tap water reeked of bleach; I smelled gasoline when none was present. My own body odor was unrecognizable, like a stranger had been wearing my clothes. My senses were, simply stated, torched. My personal, fire-breathing dragon was alerting me to something insidious: My body hadn’t healed properly from COVID-19.
Treating, much less curing, long-term damage caused by a virus the medical community doesn’t yet fully understand requires an open mind. So, as with most tales involving dragons, that meant embarking on a quest, mine to explore every avenue of therapy. I ordered olfactory training kits to stimulate my smell, trolled TikTok and (slightly more reliable) clinical research for supplements that showed a hint of promise, and tracked my progress (or lack thereof) by recording all the distorted smells in my pantry and my fragrance collection.
Like many others suffering from these symptoms, I waited months to secure an appointment with an ear, nose, and throat specialist. The feedback was not as I’d hoped: I was given a jab-jab-cross diagnosis of parosmia (distortion of smell), phantosmia (smelling things that aren’t there), and anosmia (partial or full loss of smell). All three are now recognized as symptoms of Long COVID, a name that blankets a plethora of residual effects experienced by previously healthy people after they have recovered from the virus.
The medical community, at this point, can offer only theories as to why these effects manifest and stick around. Erich Voigt, MD, a clinical associate professor of otolaryngology at NYU Langone Health, says that researchers are examining the human brain and the olfactory pathway (the complex system of receptors and nerves that allows us to smell) in COVID-19 survivors and the deceased (through autopsies) to find a possible cause and treatment for parosmia. The science is nuanced, but one theory of why we develop parosmia after anosmia, Dr. Voigt says, is self-preservation. “We use our sense of smell not only to enjoy the beautiful things, but to protect us,” he explains. “When you smell a poison, you know not to go near it. When you smell smoke and fire, you are aware there’s danger. So as our brain tries to heal this injury, it errs on the side of interpreting [smells] as dangerous to save yourself.”
Will my symptoms ever fully resolve? Dr. Voigt says we can’t know for sure, and aside from olfactory training and intranasal steroids that attempt to bring down local inflammation (neither of which worked for me), there’s no proven method to reverse the damage. Worldwide research is ongoing and Dr. Voigt has developed an app that “incorporates smell retraining” and uses visual cues to tap into smell memories to help patients relearn the scents they’ve lost. “It’s a special sense for a reason,” he notes. “There’s no separating the psychology from the physiology.”
This had become apparent: Months into my journey, I was constantly nauseated, headache-ridden, and downright depressed. My dragon followed me home from work, flapping its wings outside every pizza joint and halal cart in Manhattan. It breathed ash into my perfumes and subway cars packed with odorous passengers. It wedged itself between my partner and me in bed, blowing smoke rings in the dark. Most of my day was spent in displeasure, and my mental health was suffering for it. So when I heard a friend of a friend had been cured of their parosmia by Chinese medicine practitioner Helen Law, PhD, I begged to be added to her wait list. According to Dr. Law, acupuncture is an excellent alternative therapy for almost all Long COVID symptoms, as Chinese medicine practice addresses the full-body inflammation COVID-19 is notorious for causing.
“I target the nerves being inflamed that are causing the malfunctioning of the smell and taste,” she explains. But her sessions take the traditional practice up a notch: After inserting needles all over my scalp, face, and limbs, Dr. Law rigged the needles up to a machine to send electrical pulses of varying frequencies to rehabilitate damaged nerves. Electroacupuncture wasn’t painful, but I found myself crying almost every session due to the emotional release the practice can provide. Beyond treating my symptoms (I began to sense incremental improvements), Dr. Law reminded me that I wasn’t being overemotional. Though I appreciated the advice I’d so far received, this was the first time a medical professional affirmed for me how deep Long COVID’s mind-body connection runs.