Fourteen days ago at 3am, my throat hurt so much I woke up. “COVID,” I thought, but didn’t test positive that morning. For several days I had many of the same symptoms as the flu: sore eyeball muscles (a sure sign of illness for me that I never hear others mention), achy joints, lack of desire to move, loss of appetite, painful throat at night. It didn’t feel exactly like the flu — except for a chill here and there, I didn’t feel hot or cold (and didn’t have a fever), and later I began to experience some GI issues, which doesn’t generally happen to me with the flu.
I next tested on Monday. I was not at all surprised to see the second red line. Still, the clarity and rapidity shocked me — for months I had been magnifying and illuminating little plastic windows, just to be sure. No need for that anymore!
Initially I had planned for five days of isolation (counting that Saturday as day zero), following current CDC guidelines. This seemed reasonable — after a couple of really lousy days, most of my symptoms began to gradually subside, although I did still feel weak, and certainly didn’t want to push myself and experience a relapse. Having heard from a colleague that earlier in the summer he couldn’t distinguish among strawberry jam, hot chili, and mustard, I was relieved my own senses of taste and smell seemed unaffected.
Never tempt fate. Around day four I realized that I couldn’t taste properly anymore. I tried some habanero sauce and there was some heat but I mainly caught sour notes from the vinegar. My palate didn’t recognize the full palette of flavors — I could infer “I am eating something spicy” but I had to think about it to reach that conclusion, based on memories and on what flavors I was able to detect, instead of simply enjoy the direct experience. It was like I was only able to detect certain tastes — it was like being able to see only primary colors.
As this symptom developed, it got more disturbing. I could not taste milk chocolate with almond, at all — the pleasure was only textural. I made French toast that tasted very slightly of browned eggs but not the maple syrup. I could detect only the hazelnuts in a Ferrero Rocher. At no point did I lose all taste sensation — I could tell lemon juice was citrusy, that gummy vitamins had some fruit flavor. And I had some hope that this was temporary, but nevertheless strived to adopt the Stoic attitude of the Serenity Prayer.
Over the past few days my sense of taste has begun to improve. Definitely still not entirely returned, but this morning I could taste a banana for the first time (Admittedly I couldn’t taste bananas for two weeks, simply because I didn’t have any available. I didn’t go out, in order not to infect others.) I can tell not only that gummy vitamins have a fruity flavor, or that the cherry ones are different from the grape ones, but now I can tell those flavors roughly match what I remember of real cherries and grapes. I opened the baggie where I keep chocolate and could smell chocolate, as well as mostly experience its taste.
I wish that I had recorded my own progression more closely, been more systematic and regular about trying the same foods every day, because I’ll bet everyone’s experiences with regard to loss of taste have been different. It would have been relatively easy to create a table of various foods (lemon juice, chocolate, salt, sugar, vinegar, etc.) and record how they changed with time. One challenge is that I noticed, when I first began to recover a taste for chocolate, that the first bite was more intense and later bites become muted — which happens with food all the time, but for me the muting would fall below the threshold of flavor detection.
I also wonder if others experienced the sensation of having to clear one’s throat every so often, especially when speaking — of having a “wet” throat but feeling parched in the back of throat up towards the nose.
Everything we experience is subjective, unlike thinking, which (should be) objective. When I taste a food (normally), I can’t tell in language whether others experience it the same way. Likewise with every sensation of sight, touch, hearing, balance, smell, etc. However, one silver lining to COVID is that it allows us to share — if not the direct experience of taste — then the delta of the experience. By sharing loss and recovery, we can more clearly distinguish and share with others our individual experiences.
(It would be nice to recover fully. But perhaps I should not tempt fate.)