One of the frustrating side effects some people experience after having COVID-19 is a lingering loss of smell and taste — and some are willing to try almost anything to get those senses back.
That includes charring an orange over an open flame and eating the flesh, which emerged as a new trend on TikTok this week. Multiple people on the social media platform shared videos of themselves burning an orange, then cutting off the blackened peel and mixing the fruit with a couple spoonfuls of brown sugar, creating a concoction that, after eaten, supposedly brings back one's senses.
"I had COVID over a month ago and I still don't have my taste or smell back, so I'm going to try this TikTok witchery and see if it works," the TikTok user @anniedeschamps2 wrote.
The verdict was clear in a follow-up video: "I don't think it worked," she said, between bites of a presumably tasteless chocolate chip cookie.
Another TikTok user who tried the so-called "Jamaican orange remedy" also said it was a "fail." While oranges may be a popular fruit and a staple of Caribbean culture, the origins of this particular remedy are unclear.
"I think we all probably anticipated the same outcome, but it definitely didn't work, and it's been an hour," user @vgpuff said in a video. "I think i just have to let the nerves regenerate themselves, but I'm down to try anything because, God, I miss tasting."
Yet some found success. On Instagram, @sofies.world gave it a try, and an hour later, discovered she could taste a spoonful of Dijon mustard, although she acknowledged that the timing could also just be "coincidence."
Experts say there's no scientific evidence that eating a burnt orange can cure a loss of senses.
Losing one's ability to taste and smell, two senses that are intimately connected, happens often with viral infections. While some people have reported a prolonged loss of senses after having the coronavirus, most people find that they return to normal within several weeks.
There's a chance that people who say the burnt orange method worked already had some residual smell and taste abilities, and just didn't know it, said Pamela Dalton, Ph.D., a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia.
"People often don't know how much smell they lost, so if they do something that's really intense, like burning an orange peel, that will give you an extraordinary sensation, you may have already had an ability, but you've essentially shocked your system into smelling something strong," she said.
There's also the placebo effect to consider.
"This is certainly true when it comes to odor," Dalton said. "I can tell you the room smells like banana and there may not be a banana odor in the air, but you'll look for it, and you might recall the smell of a banana and think you smell it. There's a huge suggestibility factor."
Is there anything people can do to bring their senses back?
Dr. Alfred Iloreta, an ear, nose and throat doctor at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York City, sympathized with people who've lost their ability to smell and taste after having COVID-19.
"The sense of smell is really important in terms of quality of life," Iloreta said. "You lose your appetite, first of all. The kind of gustatory drive to eat and enjoy food is almost entirely removed. A lot of my patients who lost their sense of smell lost a significant amount of weight and became very frustrated and depressed."
While he understands their impulse, he warned people of trying DIY methods to revive their senses. Burning an orange, for example, could potentially be carcinogenic. And other methods he's seen people try are simply unfounded: doing nasal irrigation with hydrogen peroxide, essential oils or other homemade concoctions, for example.
That said, there are some things that could help, although research is ongoing, particularly as the loss of senses relates to the coronavirus.
Iloreta said there's some evidence that fish oil supplements could help (he's currently conducting a trial among COVID-19 patients to see if fish oil helps bring them back to their baseline smell ability). Intranasal steroids, including over-the-counter products such as Flonase, may also be beneficial by reducing inflammation.
For people who experience parosmia, a distortion of the sense of smell that can happen with an infection — when a cup of coffee suddenly smells like garbage, for example — there are also ways to retrain your nose.
"The simplest way is to pick about four or five different items that smell in your home, that you remember what they smell like — maybe spices from your kitchen, or your favorite perfume or hand lotion or shampoo," Dalton said. "Anything that you know had a scent to you before COVID, and that you can recall somewhat. And just keep smelling them every day, and try to associate the smell from that item with the name of that item."
Typically, good old-fashioned time will help, too.
"The system may rewire itself properly given time, and there's evidence that it does, but this may help speed up that process," she added. "And it may also just make you feel better."
After all, it's clear people want to feel like they're at least doing something to get back to normal — even if it doesn't work.