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If you experience this coronavirus symptom, it might never go away

Published Jan 13th, 2021 4:04PM EST
Coronavirus Symptoms
Image: maxbelchenko/Adobe
  • The sudden loss of smell and taste is one of the strangest COVID-19 symptoms that infected people report.
  • Most people recover the senses within a few weeks or months, but there are COVID-19 survivors who might longer to regain their lost senses.
  • Now, a new study suggests that some people might regain their senses of smell or taste after surviving COVID-19.

The clinical presentation of COVID-19 isn’t enough for a definitive diagnosis, and that’s because the vast majority of symptoms that can appear from an infection aren’t unique. But there is one sign that doctors spotted early in the pandemic that’s more likely to be associated with COVID-19 than anything else. That’s the sudden loss of smell and taste that many COVID-19 patients have experienced. The phenomenon has been studied in the past few months and while it is indeed quite bizarre, we now have an explanation of why it occurs. The virus infects cells in the nose which leads to local inflammation that can block olfactory neurons from sensing smell. That, in turn, can cause the sense of taste to disappear at the same time.

Most people will recover the two senses in a few weeks or a few months after the clear the infection. It might take some retraining, but the senses eventually return. However, there are some COVID-19 patients who will have to wait much longer to regain their senses of smell and taste — and some of them might never regain those senses at all.

A recent study showed that most people who lost their senses of smell and taste went on to develop mild COVID-19 cases. This seemed to be a good thing, as the symptom might act as some sort of marker of COVID-19 severity.

Then, a different study published in the Journal of Internal Medicine (JIM) showed that many of the volunteers took several months for the senses to return. Some 15.3% of the patients did not recover their senses after 60 days. The percentage dropped to 4.7% at the six-month mark, but that still leaves people who were not able to smell scents or taste foods long after recovering from COVID-19.

Per Yahoo Live, a study from April showed that many COVID-19 patients still experienced these symptoms long after other symptoms disappeared. The European Archives of Oto-Rhino-Laryngology found that only about a quarter of participants recovered their senses within two weeks.

Explaining the lingering symptoms to the University of Alabama at Birmingham in August, Dr. Jessica Grayson said that hope is not lost for those who still weren’t able to taste or smell. “Patients with post-viral smell loss have roughly a 60 to 80 percent chance of regaining some of their smell function at one year,” she said. But cognitive and neurological expert Leo Newhouse addressed the same matter on Harvard Health in mid-August. “Some of us might never regain our sense of smell or taste at all,” Newhouse wrote, citing the same chances of recovery at one year after the illness.

That can be a long and annoying wait. The Yahoo report notes that a 2016 study in Chemical Senses found that “patients with olfactory dysfunction have symptoms of depression that worsen with severity of smell loss.”

A significant percentage of COVID-19 survivors keep experiencing various symptoms for months after the infection. An ABC News report detailed one case a few days ago. A survivor who beat the illness more than nine months ago said she still hasn’t completely recovered her smell and taste, and she’s still experiencing brain fog. It’s unclear from these studies and reports whether COVID-19 survivors who can’t smell or taste after more than six months have other Long COVID symptoms.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.