The Other Smelly COVID-19 Symptom No One Talks About
At this point, we’ve all heard that many people lose their sense of smell for a period of time after contracting COVID-19. Known as anosmia, this condition often clears up within a few months, but in some cases can stick around long-term. Recently, articles have been emerging about other, lesser-known olfactory phenomena as well, like phantosmia and paranosmia.
So we know the coronavirus can affect your ability to smell. But what if it can also change the way you smell?
I got COVID-19 in October of 2022, an impressive two and a half years into the pandemic. Sure, I was always careful, obsessively keeping up with masking, handwashing, and vaccinations, and I’ve never been someone who goes out to parties and large gatherings much, but I was starting to feel a little bit invincible. Like maybe there was something about me genetically that made me one of those mysterious hold-outs. Like maybe it wasn’t actually going to get me.
And then I went to a hockey game. And was very sick for over a month after.
Like many fragrance enthusiasts, the star in the constellations of COVID symptoms I was most terrified of was losing my sense of smell in the long term. Thankfully, I didn’t experience this. While I was sick my sense of smell might have dulled some 10%, but I think that’s natural considering everything else my body was going through. But overall, my sense of smell has not changed.
What has changed, though, was the smell of me. Of my body. Of my sweat.
There’s no delicate way to put this. COVID made me stink way more than I did previously. It wasn’t just more of the smell of my sweat — it was the smell of a radically different sweat, as if off an entirely different person.
Pre-COVID, the smell of my sweat was light and peppery. Quiet. Faint. Oddly black-pepper-like. Nigh imperceptible. I could get away with wearing the same clothes for a week without them smelling like anything at all, save for accumulating traces of perfume.
Then I got sick. And all of a sudden, I needed to change clothes several times a day. I reeked horrifically of sweat that smelled nothing like my own, loud and putrescent and fruity, almost sweet, like overripe, half-fermented mushy apples.
Something about it felt very loud and very masculine, like I was some sort of gym bro instead of a small crocheted-fingerless-glove-wearing woman who can’t even do a single pull-up.
I can’t accurately express how strange it is to wake up and not smell like yourself.
It’s not that I was sweating more — although with the constant fever I had for weeks, that may well have been the case before I recovered. It’s that my sweat stunk, horrifically, like that of an antsy ultimate-frisbee-playing prepubescent boy.
And it wasn’t paranosmia, the experience of distorted smells, nor phantosmia, that of phantom smells, either. Everything else smelled just about the same as it did before, and my boyfriend has politely confirmed that I smell different.
Though it seems somewhat uncommon, I’m not the only one who has experienced and written about this phenomenon. Way back in July of 2020, Mic writer Joseph Lamour covered his experience of smelling different (and worse) after just a few months of quarantining. He attributes these changes to the lack of microbiome biodiversity available when isolated in one’s home from other people.
But it’s not just quarantining that does this. There have also been more recent articles about changes in body odor after COVID-19 infection.
Just two months ago, Lauren Mazzo of PopSugar reported smelling “like onions” at the first blush of sweat for the first month and a half after recovering from COVID. She points to several similar examples on forums and social media.
There’s even recent research on the matter. One study published in May found that “people infected with SARS-CoV-2, with asymptomatic or mild symptoms, have a distinct odor that can be identified by sensors and trained dogs with a high degree of accuracy.”
The Cognitive FX neurology clinic speculates that changes to body odor after COVID-19 infection are caused by changes to the function of the autonomic regulatory symptom (ANS). Specifically, a part of the ANS known as the sympathetic nervous system.
Usually, sweat mostly comes out of structures called the eccrine glands. But it’s possible that COVID-induced changes to the sympathetic nervous system stimulate sweating activity in the apocrine glands instead. Because apocrine gland sweat contains higher levels of proteins and fats, it usually has a much more pungent scent when bacteria break down these compounds on the skin.
So that’s the current theory. Getting sick messes with your nervous system in a way that leads you to sweat more through the smellier apocrine glands. That’s why some of us start smelling totally different after getting COVID-19.
Now, some three months later, I think my sweat glands are finally slowly returning to their original state. I still don’t smell like the same person I did a mere few months ago — it’s still less black pepper and more strange mushy half-fermented apple — but the new aroma is less pungent and strong, the volume subdued to something closer to my natural levels.
On me, the new sweat scent was aggressively prominent for the first two months, then gradually became more subdued. This is similar to the timelines reported by others, like Lauren.
Interestingly, none of my family members experienced this phenomenon when they got COVID, suggesting it’s not just genetics that decides whether a particular person experiences this symptom.
I’m incredibly relieved that I haven’t lost my sense of smell to the pandemic — or any other major form of functioning, or my life. But this certainly was a fascinating — and unexpected — smell-related phenomenon to experience. Human bodily odors are among the inspirations of many of the most famous perfumers. On the composition of the House of Guerlain’s classic Shalimar Eau de Parfum, perfumer Jacques Guerlain famously proclaimed that it should smell like “the underside of my mistress.”
Fiction has certainly explored this concept. The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro and Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Süskind are two classic examples.
And then there’s the whole concept of skin chemistry. Numerous genetic and environmental factors (such as the recently-discovered human oxidation field) shape how fragrance materials express themselves on our skin. There is also recent work suggesting that certain genes can accurately predict what fragrance notes a person likes the most on themselves and others. This might be related to the particular scents innate to our bodies.
But it’s quite interesting what a range exists among the scents of human bodies. And it’s quite a jarring experience to have yours radically change.
This is a weird thing to be writing about. And this article probably won’t get far — understandably so, as algorithms have to be extremely careful about promoting anything COVID-related in the sea of Internet misinformation.
But it’s my drop in the online bucket of shared COVID-19 experiences. And I’m hoping maybe it will make someone out there feel a little less weird and gross when they get sick and suddenly smell incredibly pungently putrid and nothing like themselves.
Rest assured, dear stranger: you will probably go back to normal within a few months. For the time being, take showers, change clothes, enjoy fresh and clean-smelling fragrances, and take comfort in not being alone in this incredibly strange reaction to illness.
Have you experienced smell-related COVID symptoms? Was there ever a time you smelled radically different for some reason? I’d love to hear about it in the comments below!