Jennifer Henderson, 54, hadn't been able to smell or taste properly since she got COVID-19 in January 2021.
She had other lingering symptoms, like headaches and fatigue, that went away after about a week. But her lack of taste and smell persisted for about a year, NBC News reported.
At that point, she began to smell and taste again — but her senses were altered. For Henderson, who previously loved to cook and enjoyed the smell of flowers in her yard, "it was terrible," she told the Cleveland Clinic. "Most food tasted like garbage, and I couldn’t smell anything."
Garlic and bananas tasted like gasoline and metal. Ranch dressing and peanut butter tasted like chemicals. And chicken tasted “like rotting flesh,” Henderson told NBC News.
Henderson tried smell training, acupuncture and other holistic techniques, but nothing seemed to help — until she heard about an experimental treatment through an online support group.
The treatment, a stellate ganglion block, is already commonly used to manage a variety of pain conditions, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder. It involves delicately injecting temporary local anesthesia into a bundle of nerves on either side of the neck.
This past December, Henderson had her first SGB injection.
Her results — captured in a video that's racked up nearly 500,000 views on TikTok — were dramatic and immediate. In the video, a nurse brings Henderson a cup of coffee and asks her to take a whiff. Henderson wells up with tears upon realizing that, for the first time in nearly two years, she could enjoy the smell of coffee.
“It was the best smell ever,” Henderson told NBC News. “I just cried like a baby.” She's had two more injections since then and has had even more improvements with each one, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Long COVID and altered taste or smell
It's not clear exactly how many people have a persistent loss or alteration of their sense of taste and smell after a COVID-19 infection.
But a study published last July in the journal BMJ found that around 5% of those who experienced a change in those senses during their initial COVID-19 infection would go on to have long-lasting changes. Another recent study found that, for many, the alterations in smell and taste last at least five months.
In some cases, patients see improvements through smell training, which involves intentionally taking methodical, deep sniffs of specific fragrances and spices, TODAY.com previously reported.
Researchers are also looking into other experimental treatments, including the SGB injections Henderson received. So far, Henderson is among about 30 long COVID patients treated by Dr. Christina Shin, a pain management specialist at the Cleveland Clinic. Of those, about half have had successful treatment with the blocks, with results ranging from 25% to 90% improvements in their symptoms, Shin told NBC News.
But it's not clear exactly how or why the block works. And without large-scale clinical trials, some experts are encouraging the public to keep their expectations in check — especially because a good chunk of patients often improve on their own over time.
“Given the lack of data suggesting efficacy, it’s really hard to advocate for this for patients who have a problem that typically resolves with time,” Dr. Justin Turner, associate professor in the department of otolaryngology–head and neck surgery at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, told NBC News.
“This should be treated as a scientific clue rather than a solution at this point,” added pain management specialist Dr. Luke Liu.
Henderson's sense of taste and smell hasn't returned completely, but she's experienced significant improvements — including the ability to smell her favorite perfume again.
“I would see old pictures of myself and think, ‘I used to be normal then.’ I wondered if I would have to deal with this the rest of my life,” she recalled.
Now, Henderson said, she's happy to have her life back.