Kids recovering from COVID-19 not eating? Food may smell like rotting trash

Some people who lose their sense of smell with COVID-19 can get a rude surprise as it begins to return.

Kids who are recovering from the virus who interpret some smells as disgusting, rancid or like rotting garbage may not want to eat, a D.C. pediatrician told WTOP.

“I have certainly seen a fair amount of this in my post-COVID program clinic at Children’s National that serves children with ‘long COVID,’ or post-acute sequelae of COVID,” said Dr. Alexandra Yonts, an infectious diseases attending physician at Children’s National Hospital.

Dr. Alexandra Yonts is an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children’s National and is an assistant professor of Pediatrics at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

Yonts is also an assistant professor of pediatrics at The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences. She said that as damaged olfactory neurons recover, the brain can interpret signals differently, because it’s basically learning how to smell all over again.

“We’ve seen probably up to a quarter of the patients in our long COVID clinic have had a loss of smell followed by altered sense of smell that has been very impactful,” she said.

Yonts said extreme cases of abnormal smells interpreted as unpleasant tend to involve children who are younger and up to middle school age.

“That has led to kids not wanting to eat, and has led to some significant weight loss in a lot of circumstances, up to 20 to 30 pounds,” she said.

Usually, the condition improves within six months to a year.

“It is a fairly common complaint. So if this is something you’re going through, ask your doctor about it. There are ways to make it better,” Yonts said.

If parents of children who’ve recovered from COVID notice that their children aren’t eating as much as usual, they should ask why.

“And ask if things don’t taste the same, or they taste funny. And if that’s the case, and that’s something that persists, they should go to their pediatrician and ask about olfactory retraining,” Yonts said.

What’s referred to as post-viral olfactory dysfunction isn’t unique to COVID-19, and previous treatments associated with other viral infections and syndromes have involved using olfactory retraining.

Yonts said, anecdotally at this point, it seems to help with COVID-19 patients.

Olfactory training typically involves deeply sniffing at least four different odors for 10 seconds twice daily for at least 12 weeks.

“It’s actually a very inexpensive treatment, but it takes dedication to stick with it for 12 weeks, especially when the effects are not immediate,” Yonts said.

The essential oils typically include scents that are flowery, such as rose; fruity, such as lemon; aromatic, such as clove, and resinous, such as eucalyptus. Other scents, such as cinnamon, vanilla, orange and banana, also have been used.

Yonts said people should talk to their doctor first, just to make sure there’s not something else that could be causing their loss of smell. But once they approve, she said, any “olfactory retraining kit” with four different essential oils works.

“This is an easy at-home remedy,” Yonts said.


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Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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