When the pandemic first hit in early 2020, we were faced with a long list of potential side effects of the virus. Some of these side effects were fairly common and included things like fatigue, headaches, and concentration problems. But as time wore on, we saw stranger effects like COVID toe and lingering skin rashes. However, one of the first known symptoms of COVID-19–and one of the most overlooked–was the loss of the sense of smell.
Not everyone who’s contracted the virus has experienced this symptom, but there’s been a significant amount of people who have. And sometimes, that loss of smell can linger well past recovery from the virus.
According to a letter that was recently published in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, researchers estimated that somewhere between 700,000 to 1.6 million Americans who had COVID-19 lost their sense of smell—or experienced a change in their sense of smell—for at least six months. The researchers also noted that those numbers are likely underestimated.
Medically known as chronic olfactory dysfunction (COD), a long-term loss of the sense of smell does have some potential implications on your health and well-being. Because so many people in the United States are experiencing this after a COVID infection, researchers have deemed COD associated with the coronavirus a “public health concern.”
In this study, researchers tracked the number of new daily COVID cases in the United States via the COVID Tracking Project between January 13, 2020, and March 7, 2021. Using the infection rates, they compared them with data from two studies that showed nearly 53 percent of people lost their sense of smell (olfactory dysfunction, or OD) when infected with COVID. However, 95.3 percent gained it back.
“These data suggest an emerging public health concern of OD and the urgent need for research that focuses on treating COVID-19 COD,” the researchers wrote.
The study’s co-author—Dr. Jay F. Piccirillo, professor and vice chair for research in the Department of Otolaryngology at the Washington University School of Medicine—told Health why he and his research team started studying OD and COD.
He said it was because they “noted a large number of patients seeking attention for COVID-associated anosmia [total or partial loss of smell] that persisted for more than three months.”
The number of adults ages 40 and over who have OD or COD has risen significantly during the pandemic. And Dr. Piccirillo says that number will likely rise, which is a concern.
Dr. Piccirillo explained that he and his research team decided to use the term “public health concern” because the impact of olfactory dysfunction “can affect a variety of different aspects of a patient’s life.”
He added that those impacts “will likely translate to medical and quality-of-life problems,” with safety being a huge concern. He explained that people with COD are “unable to recognize foul and dangerous odors and rancid food.” They also can’t smell smoke from a fire or a natural gas leak—which can be a hazard. Especially if your job relies on your sense of smell.
Dr. Piccirillo says that there is currently “no known way to reverse” COD. However, if you are experiencing COD after a COVID infection, it’s a good idea to check in with your doctor. They will probably refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist who can give you personalized guidance and track your progress.
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