Man smelling a lemon

How COVID-19 Can Affect Your Sense of Smell

Of everything scientists and medical professionals have learned about COVID-19 in the last year, one of the most talked-about topics is how many people lose their sense of taste and smell when they contract this illness.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention listed these effects among the most common symptoms early in the pandemic. Some people who contract COVID-19 lose their taste and smell along with having some of the other basic symptoms, like running a fever or being short of breath. But there have also been reports of patients who lose these senses yet have no other symptoms. It’s become such a part of the pandemic lexicon that if someone feels like they might be getting sick with COVID-19, family and friends will immediately ask them, “Have you lost your sense of taste and smell?”

Keeping these symptoms in the spotlight is the fact that many people whose senses have been affected by the virus don’t seem to return to normal right away, even when their other symptoms have disappeared. Some people who contracted COVID-19 a year ago still have not regained their sense of taste and smell.

Why COVID-19 affects taste and smell. Recent international research led by Harvard Medical School has shed some light on the mechanics of how people with this virus end up with Anosmia, the medical term for loss of smell. Scientists initially thought the virus was infecting the odor-sensing neurons in the nose. But now they believe what’s coming under attack are the underlying cells that provide a support network for these sensory neurons. Why is that better than the neurons themselves being infected? Because researchers believe while it may take time to bring the senses back to normal, a COVID-19 infection is not likely to cause permanent damage.

“I think it’s good news, because once the infection clears, olfactory neurons don’t appear to need to be replaced or rebuilt from scratch,” senior study author Sandeep Robert Datta, associate professor of neurobiology in the Blavatnik Institute, said in an article from Harvard Medical School.

How long it can last

The majority of people who catch coronavirus will experience some loss of taste and smell, medical experts say. A study of patients’ electronic health records showed COVID-19 patients are 27 times more likely to lose their sense of smell than patients who do not have the virus, Harvard reported. And for most people, this is temporary. Not being able to taste food or smell aromas like coffee brewing may linger for days or even weeks, depending on how the virus affects a specific person’s body. For some people, their taste and smell can become altered. “Dysgeusia” refers to taste disturbance, taste alteration, and alteration of taste (including salt, sweet, sour, and bitter.) For example, spicy foods can suddenly taste sour, or cooked meats could smell unpleasant or even rancid. As people recover, they may experience a gradual return of their taste and smell, or the senses could be restored suddenly.

Long-term effects of losing these senses

For those whose taste and smell are slow to return, health care providers are warning of side-effects to this that can negatively impact a person’s physical and mental health. Initially, it can be bewildering for some people not to be able to taste their meals, or to have their ability to smell disappear. But the longer this goes on, the more serious implications it can have.

Declining interest in eating can lead to unhealthy weight loss. Because our sense of taste and smell are strongly linked to our social activities and our memories, losing these can impact our mental health, leading to depression. If this happens to you, make sure your health care provider is aware so they can track your progress as your senses return.

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