Health

“My Mouth Felt Numb”: What Losing Your Sense Of Taste To COVID Is Like

Five months later, one person’s favorite foods still don’t taste right.

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Hot sauce — specifically, Frank's Red Hot — was a staple on Sarah's breakfast sandwiches. Then, in late March, the 26-year-old realized she couldn't taste it, or sour gummies, or extra garlic on her spaghetti.

Loss of taste, otherwise known as dysgeusia, has turned out to be one of the weirder symptoms of coronavirus. There's a chance that if you get COVID-19, you may wake up one day to find you can barely taste your morning coffee — or anything at all. One of the first studies to find that losing your sense of taste was a coronavirus symptom, published in Journal of Internal Medicine, found it was more common in young patients and women.

"Loss of taste or smell is a surprising common phenomenon with COVID-19," Dr. Natasha Bhuyan, M.D., a family physician with medical provider One Medical, tells Bustle. According to a Mayo Clinic analysis of over 8,000 patients who had tested positive for COVID-19, 38% of coronavirus patients experience loss of taste. Another study published in Annals of Internal Medicine found that up to 56% of COVID-19 patients had trouble tasting at least one of the four main flavor types: salty, sweet, bitter, and sour. The study in Journal of Internal Medicine also noted that while 70% of coronavirus patients lost their sense of smell, they tended to recover it in about eight days. Taste usually didn't come back at the same time, and in some cases, it took months. Dr. Bhuyan says loss of taste is actually really useful as a diagnostic tool: it's not often seen with the flu or other cold viruses, so if you wake up with no sense of taste, you should get a COVID-19 test ASAP.

Leila, 28, lost her sense of taste about 10 days into being sick, back in March. "I just woke up one morning ... and suddenly couldn't taste or smell a thing. I would eat spoonfuls of chili paste, take bites out of lemons — rind and all — and taste absolutely nothing."

It's not just the lack of taste that's concerning. "My mouth felt numb," Kayisha, 40, tells Bustle. "My tongue felt stiff, and like it wasn’t there." She switched to liquids until she recovered her taste, five days later, because eating food was so unpleasant.

Losing your sense of taste can be psychologically stressful, and not just because eating becomes unsettling. "I found it more emotionally taxing than expected, because I realized that a lot of my stress-relieving activities (having a cup of tea, baking) were no longer enjoyable," Leila says. Sarah agrees. "Comfort food was one of the things that was still enjoyable despite everything else changing," she says. "But I couldn't taste anything I'd made."

The amount of time it takes to recover this sense varies from person to person. Sarah lost her sense of taste for a month, while Leila reports that after five months she still can't taste some things, like alliums or Earl Grey tea. "A lot of my favorite foods are absolutely repulsive to me now, and don't taste anything like they used to," she says. While she's grateful to be healthy, she says, it's "a bizarre reminder" of her COVID-19 experience.

Experts:

Dr. Natasha Bhuyan M.D.

Studies cited:

Huart, C., Philpott, C., Konstantinidis, I., Altundag, A., Trecca, E., Cassano, M., Rombaux, P., & Hummel, T. (2020). Comparison of COVID-19 and common cold chemosensory dysfunction. Rhinology, 10.4193/Rhin20.251. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.4193/Rhin20.251

Lechien, J. R., Chiesa-Estomba, C. M., Hans, S., Barillari, M. R., Jouffe, L., & Saussez, S. (2020). Loss of Smell and Taste in 2013 European Patients With Mild to Moderate COVID-19. Annals of internal medicine, 10.7326/M20-2428. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.7326/M20-2428

Lechien, J. R., Chiesa-Estomba, C. M., Place, S., Van Laethem, Y., Cabaraux, P., Mat, Q., Huet, K., Plzak, J., Horoi, M., Hans, S., Rosaria Barillari, M., Cammaroto, G., Fakhry, N., Martiny, D., Ayad, T., Jouffe, L., Hopkins, C., Saussez, S., & COVID-19 Task Force of YO-IFOS (2020). Clinical and epidemiological characteristics of 1420 European patients with mild-to-moderate coronavirus disease 2019. Journal of internal medicine, 288(3), 335–344. https://doi.org/10.1111/joim.13089