PERFUME, cut grass and chocolate . . . all things that teenager Abi Millard has never smelled.
While loss of taste or smell is a recognised symptom of Covid-19, most patients report that the senses return after a couple of weeks.
But Abi, 15, has suffered anosmia — loss of smell — since birth.
She says: “I feel for anyone with coronavirus who may have to go through this. Hopefully they will come through the other side and get their sense of smell back. It really can impact your life.
“It’s hard as a teenager. Lots of my friends are starting to have relationships and will say things like, ‘I love how my boyfriend smells’.
“But I miss out. I’d love to wear perfume and to know what it smells like. Girls at school talk a lot about it.
“If you can’t relate to what they are saying, you feel disconnected.
“A friend bought me perfume for Christmas and said it would suit me.
“I wear it occasionally but often forget. Sometimes I worry I’ve put on too much, as it’s difficult for me to smell.
“My mum always says less is more. If I wear body spray, I’m always asking Mum if it smells OK or if I’m wearing too much. I have no idea what is right.
“At the school canteen, friends know what’s for lunch without looking, as they smell chips or apple pie.
“Not being able to smell has affected my whole life. But people never take it seriously.
“People think I’m making it up to get attention.”
Abi, from Poole in Dorset, was just four when it became apparent something was wrong.
Mum Dawn, 51, a sales manager, says: “Even when she was a toddler, Abi was very funny about food. She had no interest in eating.
“It didn’t matter what it was, sweet or savoury — she didn’t want it. We had this sudden realisation that she’d never said, ‘Urgh, that smells yucky’, or, ‘That smells delicious’.
“When you have a child, people check their height, weight, sight and hearing, but no one checks their sense of smell. Other children were mentioning smells but not Abi.”
Dawn took Abi to a GP, who recommended a blind taste test.
She says: “We blindfolded her and gave her strawberry yoghurt. She had no idea what it was.
“We were wafting strawberries under her nose to see if she could smell them but she couldn’t identify anything. A doctor prescribed nose sprays and Abi was referred to specialist after specialist, but many rubbished the idea that she was unable to smell. In the end, we gave up.”
But when Abi was 11, Dawn decided to take action again.
She says: “Abi had come home in tears after being out with friends. One of the girls had held up a bag and they’d all started to smell it. Apparently one of them had left a tuna sandwich in a hot car all day.
“Abi wanted to know what they were talking about and was told she was lucky she couldn’t smell it. But she was very upset. She wanted to understand.
“That’s when I started researching again and found charity Fifth Sense for people with smell and taste disorders.”
Two years after contacting them for advice, Abi got an appointment with specialist Professor Carl Philpott at the James Paget University Hospital in Norfolk.
Anosmia can be present from birth or can be caused by viral infections, nasal polyps and other sinus diseases.
It is estimated around five per cent of the population — 3.5million people — may suffer from anosmia.
Scans suggested Abi’s condition was caused by a deviated septum, where the bone and cartilage in the centre of the nose is crooked.
Abi says: “I’ve never known any different, so for me it is normal. One of the biggest issues is food, as I can’t taste many things. I love spicy Mexican food. It has to be quite strong for me to take any enjoyment from eating. Everything needs twice as much salt or ketchup.”
Abi has had two operations to fix her septum but neither worked.
Dawn says: “After one procedure, when Abi was 14, she had limited smell for a week. She was amazed to smell and taste the orange jelly inside a Jaffa Cake but after a few days, it was gone again.
“We’ve had so many different issues. She couldn’t understand why she needed to wear deodorant, for example.
“She wouldn’t be able to smell gas if there was a leak or smoke in a fire. She can’t tell if food has gone off. But the biggest issue is the lack of awareness. When you tell somebody, first of all they don’t believe you.
“She gets things shoved under her nose to smell but she can’t. If somebody couldn’t see, you wouldn’t keep shoving things in front of their face and asking them to look.
“It’s a trivialised condition and very misunderstood. I’ve even had specialists say that if you had to lose a sense, this is the best one.”
Abi is hoping to get a third operation in the next year.
She says: “I’m really excited. Obviously there is a chance it won’t work and I might not get a full sense of smell but even ten or 20 per cent could be life-changing.
“I’d love to smell things like perfume, cut grass or chocolate — things people say smell lovely.
“I’d even quite like to smell some nasty smells, just so I know what all the fuss is about.”
- Find out more about anosmia at fifthsense.org.uk.