‘I have no smell or taste and I’m struggling for breath – but it’s not Covid’

When Adam Hawkins woke with a tender ankle following football training the evening before, he popped two painkillers with his breakfast cereal and coffee.

With a 13-mile walk ahead of him delivering post, Adam, 46, needed to be fit and well. But arriving at his sorting office in Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, 40 minutes later, he started to feel poorly.

“My nose was running and my eyes were streaming and so bloodshot that a colleague asked if I’d been out on a bender the night before,” the dad-of-three recalls.

“My chest felt tight and wheezy, and I struggled to get my breath. It felt like an allergic reaction but I had no idea to what.”

After taking antihistamines, the symptoms subsided over two hours and Adam ­dismissed it as a one off. But a week later, following football training, he experienced wheezinesss and shortness of breath.

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Adam Hawkins’ health problems all started after a niggly injury at football training



“I realised it was happening whenever I exerted myself. I thought, ‘something’s not right here’, and saw my GP.

“Asthma tests all came back negative but I was prescribed inhalers to use when needed.”

Over the next few months, Adam experienced random flare-ups of wheeziness.

“There was no rhyme or reason to it. I’d be driving in my van and suddenly would feel my airways tightening.”

Another symptom emerged when, after a cooking mishap, he served overdone bolognese to his younger daughters, Isla, seven, and Naimh, 10.

“When they complained it was burnt, I realised I couldn’t taste or smell it. I opened every jar in my herb and spice cupboard, sniffing the contents, but nothing registered,” said Adam, who’s also dad to Darcey, 17.

Adam Hawkins hasn’t let it hold him back and still does ultra marathons



After a referral to an ear, nose and throat consultant, Adam was diagnosed with nasal polyps – soft fleshy growths in his sinuses – and was prescribed oral steroids.

“They helped but after each course the symptoms would return worse than ever. Congested and short of breath I’d get just two hours’ sleep, propped up on pillows.

“Unable to taste or smell, I had no appetite, stopped cooking – which I’d always loved – and shed two stone.

“People assume that losing taste and smell is not that big a deal but, as Covid has shown, it has a huge impact. I felt depressed, cut off from the world and vulnerable.

“Once I fell ill from eating fish that was gone off – I just couldn’t tell. And I had to leave reminders to check the gas hob before bed. I was terrified of burning the house down.”

Adam Hawkins has adapted and is still able to do long distance triathlons



Finally, in April 2018, 18 months after the onset of the illness, Adam was seen by a respiratory specialist who immediately linked the symptoms to Samter’s Triad, also known as Aspirin Exacerbated Respiratory Disease (AERD). Although Adam had previously taken ibuprofen without any problems, at some point he had developed an intolerance.

Taking the painkillers for his ankle had triggered a huge reaction. Adam was suffering the classic triad of symptoms – asthma, congestion and nasal polyps with loss of taste and smell.

“I’d never even heard of the condition and there were no leaflets or helplines. I was simply offered repeated steroids which I was reluctant to take because of side effects.

“Researching the condition myself, I came across the Samter’s Society in America – founded by patients. They were an absolute godsend and immediately suggested I ask my GP for a different asthma drug.

“After just five days, my breathing was under control. It was incredible.” Six months later, Adam accidentally discovered another way to ease symptoms.

“My bike punctured just before the afternoon school run – so I had to jog the one-and-a-half miles to get there on time.

“Almost immediately my sinuses felt less congested and, for a short time, I could smell and taste. I started running daily – planning meals around that ‘golden hour’ when I could enjoy food.

“Keeping a food diary showed that processed foods and alcohol exacerbated symptoms, so now I cook from scratch, with organic, largely vegetarian, ingredients and completely cut out wine and beer.”

In June 2019, Adam underwent surgery to remove the nasal polyps. “Six weeks later, while out on my rounds, I stopped in my tracks at the familiar smell of cow muck.

“Even now, it always puts a smile on my face.”

Samter’s Triad, also called Aspirin Exacerbated Respiratory Disease or Nonsteroid Exacerbated Respiratory Disease (NERD), is a medical condition involving sensitivity to aspirin and other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen. Asthma and chronic rhinosinusitis with recurring nasal polyps are also a feature.

ENT specialist Professor Carl Philpott, director of charity Fifth Sense, explains: “The underlying problem is salicylate sensitivity – a key ingredient in aspirin – which also occurs in foods such as grapes, tomatoes and wine.

“A defect in the inflammatory pathway causes an exaggerated response to this ingredient leading to swelling in the respiratory passages.”

It’s estimated that four per cent of the population have chronic rhinosinusitis with nasal polyps. Of those, 10 per cent are believed to have a version of NERD – approximately 268,000 people in the UK.

“There’s no cure,” says Prof Philpott. “Surgery can remove the polyps but not prevent them recurring. The main treatment is steroids and twice-daily nasal douching, or salt water rinses.

“Adam is a great role model in showing that with the right approach and lifestyle this condition is controllable. Anyone affected should seek referral to an ENT specialist with an interest in the nose and sinuses.”

  • For details see fifthsense.org.uk and The Samter’s Society, samterssociety.org

Determined to help other patients, Adam became involved with the Fifth Sense charity to help raise awareness of AERD and the impact loss of taste and smell can have on you.

“I’d spent two years growing increasingly frustrated and depressed. I wanted others to be able to get a diagnosis and the right treatment straight away.”

Through events including ultra marathons, crossfit challenges, obstacle courses and long-distance triathlons, Adam has raised around £3,000 for the charity.

“I wear a medical bracelet warning against aspirin and ibuprofen. I recently even had a flare-up after shaking
the hand of someone who’d been using anti-inflammatory gel.

“But, overall, I’m managing the condition well. I take just one asthma drug, perform a nasal rinse morning and night, and use a nasal spray steroid. I weight train, run and walk 100 miles a week and have never been fitter.”

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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