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Coronavirus victims are still waiting for smell to return weeks later

Published Apr 13th, 2020 10:45AM EDT
coronavirus symptoms
Image: STEFAN POSTLES/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock
  • Coronavirus patients who lost their sense of smell are waiting weeks for it to return.
  • Loss of smell from respiratory infections is not uncommon, but how and why some patients lose the ability to smell, and for how long, puzzles doctors.
  • Some patients reported a loss of smell and taste as the only symptoms of the viral infection.
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Ever since the first weeks of the novel coronavirus outbreak, doctors and health experts have been searching for ways to differentiate the COVID-19 illness from similar seasonal sicknesses. Some patients who were confirmed to have a coronavirus infection had lost their sense of smell, which is a symptom that is rarely associated with the common cold but is sometimes present with the flu.

It’s one of several factors doctors are taking into account when diagnosing new patients and determining who should get tested. As CNN reports, some coronavirus victims have been waiting for their sense of smell to return for weeks, and fears of permanent loss of smell are spreading.

Those fears may seem extreme, but they’re not unwarranted. As Professor Steven Munger of the University of Florida’s Center for Smell and Taste told CNN, sensory changes caused by an illness can hang around for a long time.

“What we’ve known for a long time is one of the major causes of smell loss are upper respiratory tract infections due to viruses — a common cold, influenza — a subset of people lose their sense of smell, most of them temporarily, but a small subset lose that smell permanently,” Munger explains.

Unfortunately, the recovery time is highly unpredictable, and doctors aren’t sure why. “It might take days, it might take weeks, sometimes it even takes months to years on rare occasions,” Munger says. “Sometimes it’s gradual, sometimes it is all at once and we don’t really know why that is.”

In the meantime, both confirmed coronavirus patients and those who suspect they may have COVID-19 are forced to grapple with their new normal, without a sense of smell. For some, it’s not a big deal, but others — especially those who use their sense of smell as part of their professions — are having a more difficult time.

The small bit of good news is that the coronavirus pandemic is showing signs of slowing. Many countries are now on a downward trend of new infections, and more recovered patients are being tallied every day. We’re certainly not out of the woods yet — and we really won’t be until a vaccine to prevent the disease is widely available to everyone on the planet — but the measures we are taking to distance ourselves and slow the spread appear to be paying off.