Prof Carl Philpott, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, is a leading smell expert. And he has partnered with charity Fifth Sense in launching guidance to help parents with children who have gone off their food after a bout of Covid
Imagine smelling rotting cabbage instead of smelling a lemon. Or petrol instead of chocolate. According to smell experts at the University of East Anglia and Fifth Sense, the charity for people affected by smell and taste disorders, more and more children could be turning into ‘fussy eaters’ after a bout of Covid, and this is because they may be suffering parosmia – a symptom where people experience strange and often unpleasant smell distortions.
Children, in particular, may be finding it hard to eat foods they once loved and so Fifth Sense and leading smell expert Prof Carl Philpott, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, are launching guidance to help parents and healthcare professionals better recognise the disorder.
Prof Carl Philpott says: ‘Parosmia is thought to be a product of having less smell receptors working which leads to only being able to pick up some of the components of a smell mixture. It’s a bit like Eric Morecambe famously said to Andre Previn – ‘it’s all the right notes but not necessarily in the right order’.
‘We know that an estimated 250,000 adults in the UK have suffered parosmia as a result of a Covid infection. But in the last few months, particularly since Covid started sweeping through classrooms last September, we’ve become more and more aware that it’s affecting children too.
‘In many cases the condition is putting children off their food, and many may be finding it difficult to eat at all. It’s something that until now hasn’t really been recognised by medical professionals, who just think the kids are being difficult eaters without realising the underlying problem.’
Prof Philpott is seeing teenage patients with parosmia for the first time in his career. ‘For some children – and particularly those who already had issues with food, or with other conditions such as autism – it can be really difficult. I expect there are a lot of parents at their wits end and really worried,’ he adds.
Fifth Sense Chair and founder Duncan Boak says: ‘We’re hearing anecdotal evidence that children are really struggling with their food after Covid.
‘If children are suffering smell distortions – and food smells and tastes disgusting – it’s going to be really hard for them to eat the foods they once loved.
‘We’ve heard from some parents whose children are suffering nutritional problems and have lost weight, but doctors have put this down to just fussy eating. We’re really keen to share more information on this issue with the healthcare profession so they’re aware that there is a wider problem here.’
Together with Prof Philpott, Fifth Sense have put together guidance for parents and healthcare professionals to help them better recognise and understand the condition.
First and foremost, the guidance shows that children should be listened to and believed. Parents can help by keeping a diary to make a note of foods that are safe and those that are triggers.
Prof Philpott says: ‘Establishing what the triggers are and what tastes ok is really important. There are lots of common triggers – for example cooking meat and onions or garlic and the smell of fresh coffee brewing, but these can vary from child to child.
‘Parents and healthcare professionals should encourage children to try different foods with less strong flavours such as pasta, bananas, or mild cheese – to see what they can cope with or enjoy.
‘Vanilla or flavour-free protein and vitamin milkshakes can help children get the nutrients they need without the taste. And it may sound obvious, but children could use a soft nose clip or hold their nose while eating to help them block out the flavours.’
Finally, children and adults alike should consider ‘smell training’ – which has emerged as a simple and side-effect free treatment option for various causes of smell loss.
Prof Philpott said: ‘Smell training involves sniffing at least four different odours – for example eucalyptus, lemon, rose, cinnamon, chocolate, coffee, or lavender – twice a day every day for several months.
‘Children should use smells that they are familiar with and are not parosmia triggers. In younger children this might not be helpful, but in teenagers this might be something they can tolerate.’