Children may have been put off certain foods and eating altogether in some cases because of a condition caused by Covid, experts have suggested.
Smell experts at the University of East Anglia and Fifth Sense, the charity for people affected by smell and taste disorders, say some children who have been infected with the virus could be suffering from parosmia.
Parosmia is a condition that changes or distorts the smell of things change.
For example, chocolate may smell like petrol, or someone may smell rotting cabbage instead of lemon.
Fifth Sense and Carl Philpott, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, are launching guidance to help parents and healthcare professionals better recognise the disorder.
Prof Philpott, said: “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.
“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.
“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 added that he is seeing teenage patients with parosmia for the first time in his career.
Fifth Sense chairman and founder Duncan Boak said: “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.”
The new guidance says parents can help by keeping a diary of foods that are safe, and those that are triggers.
Prof Philpott explained: “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.”
The guidance also suggests that children and adults should consider smell training. This 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.
The experts cite the example of 11-year-old Malisse Kafi who had coronavirus in September. Since then he has found it difficult to eat or drink because everything tastes “like poo and rotten eggs”.
His mum Dawn Kafi, from Old Swan, Liverpool, said: “It began with Malisse thinking his food had gone off. He says that food tastes like poo and sewerage and water tastes of rotten eggs.
“He just stopped eating, food was making him retch and gag. It was horrendous.”
Malisse was diagnosed with parosmia and given a steroid nasal spray, but it did not help.
By November he had lost around 2kg and was rushed to hospital, dehydrated and slurring his words.
Eventually, the youngster needed to be fed via a tube that went up through his nose and down into his stomach.
While Malisse still has parosmia, he is beginning to improve and he has some safe foods that he can eat.
Help and advice for parents is available on the Fifth Sense website.
Additional reporting by Press Association