Meet 23-year-old Kemar Gary Lalor, a Canadian architecture student based in Toronto. Lalor's mom, Trudy-Ann Lalor, had COVID-19 and lost both her senses of taste and smell. Lalor himself was feeling unwell too and lost his sense of taste and smell, but he was never tested for COVID.
Lalor told BuzzFeed News that his mom said him she had recovered her taste and smell within days, so he asked how she did it.
"She showed me the remedy that her mom used to give to her in Jamaica as a child," he said.
His mom's recipe entails cooking an orange over an open flame, until the fruit is entirely black on the outside. After peeling off the burnt orange skin, mix the cooked orange in either a cup or a bowl with brown sugar. Then you eat it.
Lalor tried it, and he said it worked for him too. Then a few days later when his mom was making it for his younger sister, he realized that it would be helpful for more people to find out about it.
So he created a TikTok video explaining how to prepare the recipe.
People instantly started trying out the recipe. Lalor said people reached out to him to say how much it had helped them. Some people told him they didn't see results right away, and some said they'd managed to regain their senses after trying it again or adjusting the recipe.
"My mom and I were only too happy to continue helping everyone during this difficult time," said Lalor.
Philippa-Grace Ako, an employee at BuzzFeed, had COVID-19 recently and tried the recipe out herself. While it didn't work for her, she said it did work for her boyfriend. She said she used a pan, as her stove doesn't have an open flame. He was able to taste some of the things he tried afterward such as chocolate and cookies, so it seemed the trick partially worked.
Soon, the method began to be tested by other people on TikTok, even doctors. Karan Rajan, a surgeon with the National Health Service in the UK, posted a video to TikTok trying the recipe himself. He postulated that the cooked orange could be working for these people as a type of physiotherapy for your senses, in what he called "olfactory training."
"Your olfactory nerve, the nerve involved in your sense of smell, has fibers in your brain and nose that contribute to your ability to smell and, in turn, taste," he told BuzzFeed News.
Rajan explained that olfactory training is a method that has been used in medicine to attempt to repair damaged function from diseases that cause similar symptoms to those from COVID-19. The theory is that it helps retrain the nerves, similar to when someone suffers a limb injury.
"A similar concept applies to olfactory training — however, instead of physical rehab, this would involve attempting to stimulate the olfactory system [through] exposure to strong smells," he said.
He said that while olfactory training could possibly work for some people but not others. "Nothing in medicine is ever one size fits all," Rajan said. "We all have remarkably different internal physiology."
BuzzFeed News also consulted Dr. James Palmer, a professor and director of the Rhinology Department of Otorhinolaryngology: Head and Neck Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania, to ask what he thinks of the recipe.
He said he was a little skeptical about the method, saying there is debate in the field about whether this kind of olfactory training, or smell training, actually works. While a number of papers have examined the loss of smell, there isn't much hard data on the subject, Palmer said, adding that before COVID-19 the number of people losing their sense of smell due to a virus was very small.
Additionally, he said, traditional smell retraining doesn't usually work in the way it was shown in the TikTok video. He said usually it would entail putting different scents in jars and sniffing them "every day, multiple times."
Palmer said spontaneous improvement in smell from COVID-19 loss may be as much as one third in the first few weeks but that the success rate is unknown.
However, he said, there's not much you have to lose by trying Lalor's method.
"I don't care if someone wants to burn an orange and then peel it and mix it up, fine with me," Palmer said.
In fact, he said if he were to get the virus and lose his sense of smell, he would do olfactory retraining. "It's going to cost me nothing. I'll set up some home stuff and I'll just go ahead and do it. ... And if I get my sense of smell back, I'll be really happy."
However, Palmer said, if it doesn't work for you, you should probably just move on.
"If I don't get my sense of smell back [after] six months to a year of olfactory retraining ... I'll probably stop bothering," he said.
Correction: This story has been updated to clarify that the success rate of smell training is unknown.
Correction: Kemar Gary Lalor had symptoms of COVID-19, but never got tested. A previous version of this story stated that he had the disease.