From cinnamon buns just out the oven to freshly mown grass – imagine if your favourite smells drastically changed. In a new series, Stylist speaks to people with olfactory extremes.
Altered Scents is Stylist’s new series which explores a range of olfactory extremes: from people who’ve lost their sense of smell, to others who can smell too much.
First up, we speak to Louise Woollam who lost her sense of smell five years ago, developing side effects that meant everything she smelled or ate was reminiscent of excrement. This is her story.
“Coffee smelt so bad that no one in my office could drink it or I had to go home”
“In May 2014, I caught an everyday cold. After a few days in bed, I went to a perfume event as part of my side hustle as a semi-professional fragrance critic. That was when I realised I couldn’t smell anything. It dawned on me that I couldn’t taste anything, either.
It was three months before I could see a specialist who diagnosed me with anosmia – a complete loss of smell and taste that had been triggered by the cold. I was given steroids and told to come back in six months.Then, I thought could smell burning all the time. I thought I was going insane. I later learnt that I had phantosmia, a condition that caused me to imagine it.
A few days after seeing a specialist, I ate a chocolate biscuit and it tasted disgusting, like burnt leaves and mould. Soon everything I put in my mouth tasted like that. I realised that I’d developed parosmia – this and phantosmia are conditions that around a quarter of post-viral anosmia patients develop. My version of parosmia meant everything smelt or tasted like actual, literal shit. Coffee smelt so bad that no one in my office could drink it otherwise I had to go home. I couldn’t sit near smokers or I’d be sick, and as I walked down the street I’d get wafts of sewage or really intense chemicals.
I knew if what I was eating was sweet, salty or sour but nothing more – there was no enjoyment in it. I eventually learnt hot sauce had the ability to override the disgusting taste, so I smothered everything in it. You don’t know what life is like until you eat a Jaffa Cake covered in hot sauce. I’ve got amusing anecdotes galore now, but it was a terrifying point in my life and difficult to explain to people. I eventually discovered a charity called Fifth Sense that had been set up a few years earlier.
Now, there are several Facebook communities and another charity called AbScent, which is dedicated to smell training – something I started doing after going to a fragrance conference in Paris five months after the initial cold. While I was there I smelt a perfume and realised I could smell violets, I was in tears. After that, I started to smell other things like oranges and citrus fruits, items that have fairly simple molecular structures – for example, coffee has 40,000 compounds while a violet has just 30.
When I got home, I started using my collection of 400 perfumes as my smell training kit. It was a mindfulness exercise – if I was smelling lemons I’d think of yellow or sunshine or warmth and brightness. I was trying to recreate my own memory of smell. I had to make my brain and regenerating olfactory nerves work together again, so I told myself that the more things I smelt, the more likely it was that I’d actually be able to smell them again.
It wasn’t easy and I didn’t know if it would work. The thought of having to completely change my life in so many unexpected ways, like constantly worrying about personal hygiene, or never being able to eat with friends, or being unable to wash my hair because the parosmia-smell of hot wet hair made me vomit in the shower, was too depressing to contemplate.
About 80% of my smell has now returned in my right nostril, but I can’t smell anything at all in the left one. Thanks to my love of fragrance I knew how well I could smell before, which means I’m more aware of how limited it still is, but I can probably smell as well as the average person now. I rarely have an off-reaction and the parosmia has almost entirely passed. It’s such an isolating condition, so awful and depressing, but I know I’m one of the lucky ones.”