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Over One Million Americans May Have Permanently Lost the Sense of Smell From COVID-19

With slim chances of full recovery.

Over One Million Americans May Have Permanently Lost the Sense of Smell From COVID-19
An image depicting how COVID-19 damages the olfactory system. Design Cells / iStock

It turns out, surviving a global pandemic could come with a personal cost.

More than one million U.S. citizens who contracted the COVID-19 coronavirus suffered a lingering loss of their sense of smell in a condition called anosmia, and up to 1.6 million people in the country have withstood chronic anosmia that lasted at least six months after a coronavirus infection, according to a recent study published in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology.

While only a small fraction of those who suffer chronic anosmia from a COVID-19 infection may lose their sense of smell, the virus was so widespread that it's a significant number of people.

The number of COVID-19 survivors with a loss in sense of smell is increasing

Anosmia has multiple possible causes, but one of them is suffering a respiratory viral infection. Just like COVID-19. We'd like to have known this sooner, but it took time for health experts to collect enough data to know whether anosmia was a definite symptom of contracting the COVID-19 coronavirus. Typically, this loss of smell comes with a loss of taste, since the two senses are interrelated. At times, people who contracted the virus can suffer parosmia, which is a mixed-up sense of smell that can lead to bizarre experiences where ordinary quotidian smells trigger the sense of smelling sewage, trash, or other unspeakably horrific scents of the world.

Earlier studies have suggested that 30% to 80% of people who contracted COVID-19 will also experience some degree of anosmia. But nearly 90% of these later regain their sense of smell, often in just two weeks, since the infection usually damages the cells supporting the olfactory nerve and not the nerve itself. The COVID-19 pandemic was very widespread in the U.S., which means that even a statistically rare complication like chronic anosmia can alter the lives of a lot of people. "In the last couple of months, my colleagues and I noted a dramatic increase in the number of patients seeking medical attention for olfactory dysfunction," said Otolaryngologist Jay Piccirillo of Washington University, St. Louis, who's also an editor at JAMA Otolaryngology, in a Gizmodo report.

Five percent of all COVID-19 anosmia cases will experience a permanent loss of smell

Starting with the projections of how broad the spread of COVID-19 was, Piccirillo and his research colleagues estimated the chances of someone developing anosmia from a coronavirus infection, in addition to the probability of suffering chronic anosmia. According to their research, anywhere between 700,000 and 1.6 million U.S. citizens have suffered a loss or alteration in their sense of smell that lasted more than six months, with a direct link to contracting COVID-19, as of August of 2021. And this number could be a charitable underestimate, added the researchers in the report. To make matters worse, the pandemic hasn't technically reached a conclusion yet, which means there are many more of us still waiting to contract the illness and see if our sense of smell survives with us.

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"Most cases (~90%) of viral associated anosmia resolve within two weeks — including COVID," said Piccirillo in the report. "The prognosis for long-term olfactory dysfunction [which is greater than six months] is not so good. Less than 20% can expect to recover smell after 6 months." If that's not dark enough, he added that roughly 5% of all anosmia cases will experience a permanent loss of all or some of their sense of smell. While there may be a way to help treat these victims in the coming years and decades, it seems all the rest of us can do is enjoy our sense of smell, while we can.

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