27 Million People Estimated to Have Suffered Long-Term Loss of Smell or Taste from COVID

·2 min read
sense of smell
sense of smell

Getty Woman smelling orange

An estimated 27 million people worldwide are still suffering what appears to be long-term negative effects on their sense of taste and/or smell after contracting COVID-19.

According to new research published Wednesday in The BMJ (the British Medical Association's peer-reviewed medical journal), "about 5% of people report smell and taste dysfunction six months after COVID-19."

The journal notes that about 550 million people have reported contracting COVID-19 globally, putting that 5% at an estimated 27 million.

"Having these now millions more people worldwide with decreased ability to smell — that may simply be a new public health crisis," Stanford University rhinologist Dr. Zara Patel (who was not involved in the study published Wednesday) told NBC News.

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COVID-19 named by WHO for Novel coronavirus NCP concept
COVID-19 named by WHO for Novel coronavirus NCP concept

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The report also notes that about 75% of the people in groups looked at by researchers — in 18 previous studies worldwide, across several demographics — regained their sense of taste/smell within a month.

"Olfactory training, started as soon as possible after the onset of symptoms, is the only disease specific intervention with evidence of efficacy for the treatment of post-infectious olfactory dysfunction," researchers advise. "Patients are advised to sniff and try to identify a sequence of four strong smelling scents — usually rose, eucalyptus, lemon, and clove — for 15 seconds twice a day over the course of several months."

They add, "In addition to the use of nasal steroids, which aim to resolve SARS-CoV-2 induced inflammation, other treatments that have shown some, albeit marginal, benefit in small clinical trials include intranasal vitamin A and supplements of alpha lipoic acid and omega 3 fatty acids."

The new data arrives after, in January of last year, researchers discovered that olfactory dysfunction — the reduced or distorted ability to smell, and a common symptom of COVID-19 — was reported in nearly 86% of mild cases, as indicated by a patient who shows no evidence of viral pneumonia or loss of oxygen, and is able to recover at home.

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The latter study, published in the Journal of Internal Medicine, analyzed the loss of smell (with which sense of taste is commonly associated) in 2,581 COVID-19 patients from 18 hospitals in Europe between March 22 and June 3, 2020.

Sense of smell reappeared after an average of 18 to 21 days, with 95% of patients getting their smell back within six months.

Meanwhile, the loss of smell was reported in just 4% of moderate COVID-19 cases and in nearly 7% of severe-to-critical cases, that study said.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from the CDC, WHO and local public-health departments.