BUFFALO, N.Y. (WKBW) — It's been six months since Hamburg mom Bernadette Singer-Kreitzbender came down with COVID-19. Right away, she says her sense of smell was altered.
"As if somebody was standing next to me - and the burning end of the cigarette was in my nasal passage for three straight days. Following that, I lost my smell and my taste completely. So I knew I had COVID. Right then and there."
That was in early December. Bernadette says she was feeling much better by the start of the new year, but her senses of smell and taste never fully came back. Weeks later, she noticed another change.
"I'm eating - and I'm like - these chicken wings taste disgusting," she said. "Everything I started to eat was like - what is wrong with me?! Everything tastes gross! Why is this happening?"
That was about 10 weeks ago. Since then, she's lost 26 pounds.
Bernadette is part of a small subset of COVID-19 survivors who say almost nothing smells or tastes the same since they were sick. Some will tell you their coffee tastes like plastic. Others call the odd taste they get the "COVID taste." Bernadette says for her it's even worse.
"Imagine a rat that has been dead for three weeks. Everything smells like that. Everything tastes like that. It's awful," she explained.
She also says it's something many people don't believe when she tells them.
7 Eyewitness News spoke with Ear, Nose and Throat Doctor Gerald Jeyapalan from Buffalo Medical Group. He doesn't treat Bernadette, but he does see one or two patients a month with similar complaints.
"The thought process with the change is that with COVID, it attacks the supporting cells to the olfactory nerves," he explained. "So that's why the sense of smell gets diminished. The small subset is that it could affect the vascular structure around the nerves."
If that happens, Dr. Jeyapalan says the nerves themselves can get damaged, and that could be why things don't smell or taste the same.
"It's true, things are smelling and tasting different," he said. "It's just the way the brain, the nerves heal."
Bernadette says for her almost everything tastes awful. One of the few foods that still tastes normal to her is green olives, so she's been eating dozens of them a day. She's also been supplementing her diet with protein shakes, hoping to get the nutrients she needs. Even products that she's used every day bother her now.
"Soaps, shampoos, lotions - I can't wear lotion," she said.
When it first happened, Bernadette searched social media to see if anyone else had a similar story. She found thousands of former COVID patients who say they're going through the same thing.
"There's 30 thousand people across the nation in this group. I'm not making this up in my head."
One of the groups is called the "Covid Anosmia/Parosmia Support Group. Anosmia is a medical term for the loss of the sense of smell, and parosmia is a term that describes conditions that distort your sense of smell. That group alone has 25,000 followers.
Dr. Jeyapalan says one thing that might help is what's called smell training. It's pretty much what it sounds like - a patient takes time each day - to smell specific things.
"The idea of the smell training is basically to try and make the neuroconnections back, so things will smell like they're supposed to," he explained.
It's something that Bernadette says members of her Facebook group also suggested, so she's been giving it a try, even though it hasn't been easy.
"If you broke a bone, you should go through physical therapy. It's uncomfortable. But it's something you have to go through. This is the same," she said.
Right now, doctors don't know much about this side effect of COVID, but Dr. Jeyapalan says they are working to learn more.
"There's active research going on to look at it and try to treat it. So there is hope, we just don't have an answer now. But hopefully down the pipeline we will."
He also says he understands it can be frustrating not to have answers, and he knows it's not an easy wait for the people who are struggling. Bernadette agrees.
"I can't smell my children. I miss the smell of my children," she said. "My husband. My husband's scent to me is like home. And every time I hug him now I have to turn my face away from him. It's awful."
If you're experiencing these lingering COVID-19 symptoms:
Dr. Jeyapalan says you should start by visiting your doctor, but also go see a specialist. He says it's important that you rule anything else out first, and then you can start to work together on a plan.