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Sharp Health News

COVID-19 and the loss of smell

Dec. 4, 2020

Woman holding her hand over her face
Smell and taste have a powerful connection to memory and emotion. A specific scent or flavor can transport us to a meaningful place and time, remind us of a lost loved one, or build excitement for a delicious meal. Losing that connection can have a significant impact on mood and appetite, and lead to both physical and mental health concerns.

A recent study of data collected from several countries determined that the loss of sense of smell was one of the top five most common symptoms experienced by those with COVID-19. Fever, cough, fatigue and trouble breathing are the other four most common symptoms.

While most people regain their sense of smell along with the sense of taste that is also commonly lost due to COVID-19, some people don’t regain these senses for weeks or longer after their recovery. Researchers are currently investigating whether the coronavirus affects sensory neurons in the nose, rather than simply causing inflammation and stuffiness, as you might experience during a cold.

“People may be familiar with changes to their sense of smell and taste during common colds, but we’re finding that COVID-19 might actually lead to a change in the cells of the nose,” says Dr. Eric Mair, chief of otolaryngology (ear, nose and throat) with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group. “While most people regain these senses after recovering from COVID-19, we are seeing some ‘long-haulers,’ or people who have symptoms for months, not regain their ability to smell and taste for extended periods of time.”

According to a recent article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), approximately 10% of people with COVID-19 are long-haulers. However, because the disease is so new, it is currently impossible to know exactly how many people will experience symptoms beyond the normal timeframe of about two weeks, and when — or if — those that lost their sense of smell and taste will regain them.

“There is no way to tell exactly who will experience symptoms longer than others,” Dr. Mair says. “Some who had mild cases may experience lingering symptoms, such as loss of smell and fatigue, while others with more severe cases may fully recover. What’s more, the lingering symptoms may not have appeared during the early days of infection, but arise later and persist for months.”

While the loss of these two senses does not seem to be one of the more dangerous symptoms of COVID-19, it can cause distress for those who experience it. People who say their sense of smell or taste was affected by COVID-19 report one or more of the following:

  • A total loss of smell
  • A total loss of taste
  • A constant smoky, burnt plastic, chemical, bitter, sour, feces-like or soapy smell
  • A metal-, chemical- or plastic-like taste
  • Loss of appetite
  • Unintended weight loss
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
While the loss of smell or taste due to COVID-19 is usually treated at home and most people will see the issues resolve or improve over time, Dr. Mair recommends that people talk to their doctor about persistent issues. Treatments, such as topical corticosteroids and olfactory training — the repeated sniffing of a set of odorants such as lemon, rose, cloves and eucalyptus a few times a day for three months or longer — can be effective.

“We know COVID-19 affects both physical and mental health in a variety of ways,” Dr. Mair says. “However, research also tells us smell and taste are linked to our memories and emotions, and their loss can lead to depressed mood and anxiety. It is important to work with your doctor to determine what treatments, both medical and psychological, might help as you recover from COVID-19.”

Learn what Sharp HealthCare is doing in response to COVID-19.

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