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Children's health

25th Jan 2022

Covid could turn kids into fussy eaters or make mealtimes harder for kids with sensory issues

Laura Grainger

This after-effect can be difficult to deal with, but the experts have tips to make it easier.

Children who have been infected with Covid-19 may experience a distorted sense of smell or taste afterward, which could lead to them developing issues with food, experts say.

“Parosmia” is a condition that can occur after viral infection and causes strange or often unpleasant smell distortions.

To those suffering with the condition, foods don’t have their usual smell, but instead might smell rotten, or like rubbish or gasoline.

Parosmia has been a common after-effect of coronavirus, with around 250,000 adults in the UK estimated to have suffered with it after recovering from the virus.

Experts now say it is affecting children and causing difficulties for them when it comes to eating, something that can be particularly hard for those with pre-existing sensory issues.

According to Carl Philpott, a leading smell expert at the University of East Anglia’s Norwich Medical School, the disorder was previously not as recognised by the medical community prior to the pandemic and was instead misunderstood as kids just being fussy eaters.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

He added: “In many cases the condition is putting children off their food, and many may be finding it difficult to eat at all.

“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.”

Philpott, along with the charity Fifth Sense, have released guidance to help parents and healthcare professionals better understand the disorder and differentiate it from picky eating.

“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,” Fifth Sense Chairman and founder Duncan Boak said.

“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.”

In their guidance to professionals and parents, Philpott and the charity said that children complaining about food tasting or smelling different should be listened to and believed.

Parents can also help by “keeping a diary to make a note of foods that are safe and those that are triggers” for parosmia, which are usually strong smells such as those of cooking meat, onions, garlic, or fresh coffee.

“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,” Philpott added.

“Vanilla or flavour-free protein and vitamin milkshakes can help children get the nutrients they need without the taste.”

If they’re struggling even with plainer foods, Philpott advises using “a soft nose clip” or “holding their nose while eating to help them block out the flavours.”

He added that parents should also consider doing some “smell training” with their kids to potentially help retrain the brain to recognise different scents. This consists of sniffing at least four different odours twice a day, every day, for several months.

Philpott says children should use “smells that they are familiar with and are not parosmia triggers”, such as lemon, cinnamon, chocolate, mint, orange, lavender and so on.

International experts recognise the method as a cheap, effective and side effect-free way of recovering a regular sense of smell.