Given the breadth of alarming COVID symptoms—shortness of breath, potential organ damage, brain fog—it might seem like a loss of taste and smell are minor inconveniences. But scientists and doctors are expressing concern about the prevalence of the issue, especially since a recent study in the Journal of Internal Medicine found that this peculiar symptom accompanies most mild cases of COVID-19.
In the research, about 86% of people with mild cases lost their sense of smell and taste. A majority got it back within three weeks, but 5% of those studied hadn't recovered these functions as of the six-month mark. With those who have more moderate or severe symptoms of COVID, the loss was much lower, with only about 4-7% losing their ability to smell or taste. (Related: The One Vitamin Doctors Are Urging Everyone to Take Right Now.)
COVID isn't the only virus to have this kind of effect, according to Omid Mehdizadeh, M.D., otolaryngologist and laryngologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California.
"We don't know exactly why it happens, but viruses, in general, can cause lingering issues, and not just because you might be congested," he says. The likeliest cause is that nerve fibers connecting your brain to your nose—called the olfactory bulb, in the front-center part of your brain—can get inflamed when you're sick. That can cause cells related to smell and taste to 'die-off,'" says Mehdizadeh.
Eventually, new cells are produced to replace them, but it can take weeks or even months for that process to get you back on track. With COVID, some people seem to be taking a much longer time to regain those senses and there's concern about permanent loss. That would be a huge problem, Mehdizadeh believes, as these senses are integral to your quality of life.
For example, older people often struggle with a loss of taste, and that tends to lead to depression and nutrition issues. If you can't taste your food, he says, you're less inclined to want to eat. Even when you do manage to force yourself because of hunger, you might be struggling with getting enough nutrients, he adds.
In terms of smell, that can be an equally profound loss. "You don't know how much enjoyment you get from smells until they're gone," he says. "Even on a temporary basis, you can feel a significant sense of sadness and loss when you can't smell anything."
Imagine not being able to ever taste food in the same way you did just a few months prior. How would that, then, affect what you choose and don't choose to eat?
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