What to Do If You Lose Your Sense of Taste and Smell, From a Guy Who’s Never Had Either

By now, everyone knows the basic symptoms of coronavirus: fever, achiness, shortness of breath. But scientists have now discovered a new one—something that most people have never experienced before, but that could serve as an early warning sign that they have the virus. And it’s really bumming people out.

The symptom is this: You lose your sense of smell, which means food will taste like nothing. “If it’s permanent I’m jumping out a window,” tweeted Sarah Maslin Nir, a New York Times reporter who came down with the virus. “Eggplant Parmesan tastes like a hot wet book.”

But for anyone suffering this fate, I have good news: Losing your sense of smell may suck, but it has many benefits! You just have to think about food and life a little differently. I speak from experience: I don’t have coronavirus (yet), but I’ve also never had a sense of smell—and I’m a happy person who eats and drinks almost like anyone else.

So, what’s good about losing your sniffer? Here’s my seven-point survival guide:

1. This is more common than you might think.

Smell is controlled by your olfactory nerves, which are small and fragile. Many things can damage or block them, including head trauma, chemical exposure, brain tumors, or just nasal inflammation. If your sense disappears, you’ll immediately notice it in your food. Your tongue is technically what you “taste” food with, but that just means you’re identifying sweet, salty, sour, and bitter. Your sense of smell actually does the rest, reading molecules from your food and translating them into a full sense of flavor. This means that, without smell, you’re left with only the basics. When I eat potato chips, I only taste salt. When I eat apple pie, I only taste sweet.

But there are plenty of things a smell-impaired person can enjoy, like…

2. You can still enjoy hot sauce.

And hot pepper flakes! Heat has nothing to do with your olfactory nerves, or even your tongue. It’s a feeling you get from your trigeminal nerve, which is a nerve inside your face. This is the greatest sensation you’ll get from food, so go crazy with it. When I was in Thailand buying street food, the vendor asked if I wanted “tourist spicy” or “Thai spicy”, and I went with Thai spicy. It melted my face in the best possible way. I strongly endorse.

3. Your new favorite drink is scotch.

Most liquor tastes the same to me. Vodka is whiskey is tequila is rum is gin. I wish this weren’t true; I’d love to tell the difference. But there is one kind of spirit that stands out, and that you might as well buy by the caseload: very smoky scotch. I recommend anything that comes from the Scottish island of Islay, where wonderfully smoky brands like Ardbeg and Laphroaig are based. The smokiness is another benefit of your trigeminal nerve.

4. You can trick yourself.

Years ago, Brown University smell researcher Rachel Herz, Ph.D., put some chemicals in an unmarked jar, and asked people to smell them. “Before I handed it to people, I said, ‘This is Parmesan cheese.’ They opened it up and said, ‘Mmm, yeah,’” she once told me for a story in Men’s Health. “A week later I gave them the exact same smell, and as I’m handing them the jar I tell them it’s vomit—and they scrunch up their faces; they say it smells horrible.”

What’s going on? Our brains combine information: We smell what we think we smell, rather than what we actually smell. This can work to your advantage. Even though I can’t taste my food, I go out to nice restaurants. I read the menu closely, and think about what I’m ordering. Then I appreciate my food as I eat it. And you know what? It kind of works—I truly feel like I’m eating something unique, even if, with my eyes closed, it’s all basically the same. So keep your eyes open. Think about your food. Enjoy it.

5. You are the hero of your household.

Guess who changes most of the diapers in my home. It’s me! Guess who can’t smell my wife’s farts. It’s me! When you can’t smell, you are a gigantic household asset. Own it. Flaunt it. Demand foot massages in return.

6. It’s so much easier to eat healthy.

You don’t need cheese in your omelet, because you won’t taste it there anyway. Ditto with ketchup on your burger, or mayo in your sandwich. Also, you might as well throw out your soda—seltzer is practically the same thing, just a little less sweet. You can replace these things with textural foods, which is something you’ll now come to appreciate a lot more. I love muesli, complicated salads, and Indian food.

7. It’s also so much easier to eat… anything!

In college, I used to make grilled-cheese-and-M&M sandwiches in my George Foreman Grill… just because I could. Of course, I don’t do that anymore. (Also, my wife made me throw out the Foreman.) But in a pinch, I’m still happy to pile food on top of each other. Just yesterday, I was in a rush to make lunch, so I grabbed what was already on the counter: I put avocado and lox on top of a cinnamon raisin English muffin. No problem.

And finally, consider this: If you lose your sense of smell, whether from the coronavirus or something else, it’s possible to regain it. Most people get it back within a few weeks or months. So if that’s the case, enjoy the trip into my world. Eat a strange sandwich. Inhale deeply when your loved one farts. And seriously: You want the Thai spicy.

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