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Experts say a sense of smell is important for both physical and mental health. Cavan Images/Getty Images
  • A new study estimates that as many as 1.6 million people in the United States have experienced a loss of taste or smell after developing COVID-19.
  • Although the vast majority of people who develop this ailment recover, about a third of people with anosmia will experience lingering effects.
  • Experts on smelling loss say that early treatment is key. Doctors have effective treatment methods for anosmia, but the condition becomes more difficult to treat the longer treatment is delayed.

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 700,000 to 1.6 million people in the United States have lost their sense of taste or smell for at least 6 months after recovering from the disease, according to new research.

People who’ve experienced long-term olfactory dysfunction from COVID-19 have reported that the symptoms diminish their quality of life as well as impair how they eat, socialize, and detect harmful chemicals and gases.

Underlying conditions, age, and how long people experienced the symptoms before seeking help from a specialist are thought to contribute to the prognosis of loss of taste or smell.

The vast majority of people who lose their sense of taste and smell recover, but about 30 percent experience lingering effects, researchers reported.

For these people, early treatment is key, as anosmia becomes harder to treat the longer you wait.

“I would love to see everyone a week after they’ve lost their smell and get them started on the things we know can help them, but unfortunately most of the time these patients are not referred to me until several months and even years later,” Dr. Zara Patel, a head and neck surgeon and smell-loss expert at Stanford Health Care in California, told Healthline.

“It is much harder to do anything to help them at that point.”

The researchers suspect that the number of people who’ve experienced loss of taste or smell after contracting SARS-CoV-2 may be much higher than their estimates.

And because the pandemic isn’t over, many more Americans will experience chronic olfactory dysfunction after developing COVID-19, they said.

Scientists are still uncovering why some people are more prone to losing their sense of taste or smell.

Patel said that it likely has to do with age along with underlying conditions — such as diabetes, hypertension, neurologic conditions, and autoimmune disorders — that impact the olfactory system’s ability to bounce back after the infection.

Approximately 70 percent of people who experience anosmia will recover, according to Patel, but 30 percent will not.

“In numbers, this is millions of people who will not be able to recover on their own,” Patel said.

According to Patel, the SARS-CoV-2 virus enters the body through the respiratory tract, starting with the nose.

Our olfactory nerves, which allow us to smell, are located at the top of our nasal cavity. The virus does not attack these nerves, but rather damages nearby cells, often causing an immediate loss of taste or smell.

“They are very superficial in the lining, as they need to pick up on odorants in the air, but that also allows them and their surrounding support cells to be very vulnerable to anything else we may breathe in — like a virus,” Patel explained.

It isn’t until a few months after recovering from the infection, when the regenerative process takes places, that olfactory dysfunction becomes more apparent, Patel added.

The damaged cells continue to impair the body’s ability to taste and smell normally.

Loss of taste or smell may seem innocuous, but the ailment can have a significant impact on daily functioning.

Patel said that smell is one of those senses many don’t fully appreciate until it’s gone. Other experts agree.

“We use our sense of smell to detect harmful odors such as spoiled or rotten food or a gas leak. It is also tied to our appetite and can impact our nutrition,” Dr. Mahdee Sobhanie, an infectious diseases physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, told Healthline.

Scents can also trigger memories and boost our overall wellness, Sobhanie added.

Taste also has a big social component and comes into play when we eat and drink with other people.

When you take that into consideration, it’s understandable how anosmia can lead to social withdrawal and depression, said Patel.

“I could then go on for pages about how smell affects the way we interact as human beings — how we choose sexual partners, how we choose life partners, how parents and infants bond, how we make first impressions, etc.,” Patel said.

“Basically smell is integral to every part of being human, and it’s loss is profoundly felt by those who experience it.”

According to Patel, the most important thing is to seek treatment for anosmia as soon as possible.

It’s much easier to treat anosmia within a couple weeks after recovering from the infection. However, many people wait months, sometimes longer, to seek help and at that point the condition is more difficult to treat, said Patel.

There are treatments available — including olfactory training, topical steroid irrigations, and high dose Omega-3 — to help restore taste and smell after developing COVID-19.

Patel advises her patients experiencing anosmia to avoid online support groups and forums as they are littered with misinformation and harmful suggestions.

There are many natural remedies being recommended online — like putting zinc up one’s nose — that actually widen smell dysfunction.

“Follow the science, Try the things that have been proven via randomized controlled trials and stay away from the others,” Patel advised.