Up to 1.6 million people in the United States lost their sense of smell for at least six months as a result of a Covid-19 infection, according to a new paper published this week in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery.
“We’ve never really had a formal estimate made of how many people have been struggling with this,” said Sandeep Robert Datta, a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School.
“This is a really unusual event in terms of olfactory (smell) dysfunction and an unprecedented consequence of a pandemic that’s never really been observed before.”
When the SARS-CoV-2 virus arrived last year and became a global pandemic, many people who were infected reported losing their sense of smell.
It was added to the list of symptoms used by the CDC to diagnose the disease because of how common it was, 30 to 80% of people who test positive for the virus that causes COVID-19 have reported loss of smell.
This phenomenon is called anosmia or the loss of the ability to detect one or more smells. It is also called “smell blindness.”
Anosmia may be temporary or permanent. Its opposite is hyposmia, which is a decreased sensitivity to some or all smells.
Anosmia can be due to a number of factors, including an inflammation of the nasal mucosa, blockage of nasal passages or a destruction of one temporal lobe.
John Hayes, director of the Sensory Evaluation Center at Penn State, tells CNN: “It’s really consequential to appetite and social relations, like people have lost their sense of smell may not be able to detect if they have body odor, and can impact diet too,” saying that loss of smell is also linked with higher rates of depression.
A group at the Monell Chemical Senses Center reviewed existing research and found that with direct, objective measures, about 77% of COVID-19 patients had smell loss versus only 44% if researchers used more subjective self-reporting methods.
90 to 95% of patients with COVID-19-related anosmia lose it by the sense of smell coming back within anywhere from two weeks to three months.
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However, not everyone gets lucky.
“There are those remaining 5 to 10% of people for whom either their smell doesn’t come back, it comes back reduced or comes back in a distorted way,” says Jay Piccarillo, an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist.
This distorted sense of smell is known as parosmia. People with parosmia may experience a loss of scent intensity, meaning they can’t detect the full range of the scents around them.
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