One teen’s loss of smell from COVID-19 serves as a reminder about pervasiveness of virus

Kenny Mayfield lost his sense of smell in early March. Months later, it still has not returned, a side effect of COVID-19 that he is working to regain.

Kenny MayfieldKenny Mayfield, 16, lost his sense of taste and smell as a side effect of COVID-19. Nearly seven months later, he still is without the senses. Photography: Lexi CoonIn mid-March 2020, Kenny Mayfield, a high school junior from Helena, Alabama, experienced two days of bad headaches — headaches that he chalked up to seasonal allergies and feeling tired from the responsibilities of school. After his headaches subsided, he noticed that his senses of taste and smell had disappeared completely.

At the time, little was known about the novel coronavirus making its way from China through Europe, and few — if any — cases were detected in the United States. A few weeks later when headlines began reporting that loss of taste and smell was an indicator for the novel coronavirus, Kenny and his family had suspicions that coronavirus was to blame for his loss of taste and smell.  

“We started thinking, ‘well maybe I was exposed to this new virus and just didn’t know at the time,’” Kenny said. “I had no other symptoms that were characteristic with COVID-19, and as a result, I also couldn’t get tested since tests were in high demand for critically symptomatic patients. It wasn’t until three months later that I was able to get an antibody test, which confirmed that I had COVID-19 antibodies, and likely lost my taste and smell as a side effect of the virus. I had no idea that I had been infected with COVID-19.” 

Smell loss and COVID-19

While evidence and data have been rapidly collected since the virus entered the United States in early spring 2020, symptoms, side effects, recommendations and more have changed as experts continue to learn about COVID-19. However, a defining symptom of COVID-19 cases has been anosmia, the loss of sense of smell, with 40 percent of anosmia due to post-viral causes. 

Anosmia has also been a reporting symptom noticed early on, prior to other symptoms’ arising, or even as the only symptom present in an otherwise asymptomatic patient with COVID-19.

Upon knowing that his smell loss was a lingering side effect of COVID-19, Kenny was referred to experts in the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham to undergo smell retraining, with the hopes of regaining some of his smell and taste senses.  

“Patients with post-viral smell loss have roughly a 60-80 percent chance of regaining some of their smell function at one year,” said Jessica Grayson, M.D., assistant professor in the UAB School of Medicine and Kenny’s smell retraining physician. “Studies have shown improvement in smell when patients utilize smell retraining. When patients performing smell retraining were compared to patients who were not, there were more patients who had improvement in their sense of smell.”

For Kenny, his smell retraining included first going through a book of 40 “scratch-and-sniff” scents to see what he could gather. As part of his smell retraining, each morning and night, he smells four different essential oils from four odor categories — flowery, fruity, aromatic and resinous — to retrain the mind to identify those odors. Kenny explained that, depending on his level of smell redevelopment, he will continue this process for six months to a year.

Kenny2Kenny undergoing smell retraining with Dr. Jessica Grayson. Photography: Lexi Coon Scent loss impacting daily life

As many survivors of COVID-19 who experienced anosmia recovered their sense of smell and/or taste in a few days, many like Kenny are continuing to experience the short- and long-term effects of losing those senses.  

For Kenny, his loss of smell has posed issues ranging from having no appetite and experiencing significant weight loss to not being able to sense danger — aspects of losing one’s sense of smell and taste that are not often considered.

“I was driving my truck with the trailer and my brake calipers had locked up and started burning,” Kenny said. “I came home and my parents were shocked that I could not smell the scent of burning brakes. I could have caused a serious accident and put myself and other people in life-threatening danger if the problem went undetected.”  

Kenny also notes that, while he can taste sensations like bitterness, sweetness, saltiness and sour, the enjoyment that comes along with eating has essentially vanished, causing him to not eat enough and lose a significant amount of weight in a short period of time. As Kenny is an avid powerlifter and active teenager, his parents are constantly having to remind him to eat — to ensure he is taking in enough calories to maintain his health.

“I’ve had to alter how I cook as the texture of food has become an important factor for Kenny since smell and taste aren’t in play,” explained Brenda Mayfield, his mother. “For example, Kenny used to eat half the casserole at dinner, and now we have to make eating more of a conscious action. When he first lost his sense of taste and smell, he ate a whole garlic glove and couldn’t taste or smell the garlic, which is indicative of how severe his smell and taste loss truly is.”

Kenny4The Mayfield family ties to UAB run deep, with Kenny's mother, father and brother working at UAB and UAB Medicine. Photography: Lexi CoonLooking ahead at the future without smell

Kenny’s family connections to UAB run strong. His mother, Brenda, is a psychiatric/mental health nurse practitioner in UAB’s School of Nursing, and his father, Bill, is UAB Medicine’s Emergency Preparedness manager, and has been in the UAB Hospital COVID Command Center since day one, helping to guide clinicians and administrators through the pandemic. His older brother, Matthew, has also been instrumental in the UAB Hospital COVID Command Center alongside his father, supporting key preparedness planning efforts.  

While all three family members have been frontline health care heroes, none tested positive for COVID-19 or antibodies, which has stumped the Mayfield family since all have been living under the same roof with him and all are so intertwined with the COVID-19 crisis. In looking ahead, they certainly have concerns about how this will impact their family.

“As a mom, I worry about how this will affect Kenny’s health and well-being,” Brenda said. “I worry if his senses will ever return — how will this impact his going to college next year? How will this affect his appetite moving forward? Will this influence his mental health since it puts him at a higher risk for anxiety and depression? We don’t know about the long-term effects of this virus. I have concerns about the issues that could linger into the future. It is concerning how this will all play out.”

Learn more and join UAB in the fight against COVID-19. 

For Kenny, he is focused on the next few months of smell retraining and also acclimating to the present circumstances that COVID-19 has caused. A leader in the Helena High School band, he has helped with social distancing strategies for the group and hopes to use his experience to continue to encourage his peers and others who may not think they are affected by COVID-19 and to take it seriously.

“I’m trying to keep positive and focus on what I can control. I can say that I certainly do not take smell and taste for granted any longer.”