By now, everywhere you look, lists of COVID-19 symptoms are out there. The tell-tale symptom that stands out as a real bummer (especially for foodies) is the loss of taste and smell. What happens if you lose the two? The doors to a myriad every-day experiences slam shut. You can’t smell. You can’t taste. A big part of your life is temporarily gone.
Being unable to savor a stir-fry, though, is not the big problem here. It’s not just about not being able to smell or enjoy your favorite food, but this unusual symptom could have longer-lasting consequences, particularly in regards to mental health. Surgeons and behavioral scientists are concerned over the anxiety and depression that can accompany smell and taste disabilities because of COVID-19.
In turn, support groups for helping patients over hurdles of anxiety and depression have made themselves heard. Groups like Fifth Sense and AbScent are helping people who have lost their sense of smell and taste, offering support for them. One person giving testimony of what it feels like without a sense of smell thought about missing the smell of newborns and fresh-cut grass, and that “gorgeous smell after the rain.”
Based in the UK, Fifth Sense carries convincing messages that losing your sense of smell is much more profound than you may think. Psychological consequences can be serious. In its deep-dive into the psychological impacts of smell loss, the site reminded its readers that smell is one of the ways we connect with the world.
“Anosmia sufferers often talk of feeling isolated and cut-off from the world around them, and experiencing a ‘blunting’ of the emotions,” the organization says.
The memory link
Dr. Eric Mair, chief of otolaryngology with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, said research informs us that smell and taste are linked to our memories and emotions, and their loss “can lead to depressed mood and anxiety.”
Sandeep Datta, associate professor of neurobiology in the Blavatnik Institute at Harvard Medical School, said that anosmia (loss of smell) “can be devastating for the small fraction of people in whom it’s persistent.” He cautioned that we could be looking at a different public health problem if we have a growing population with a lasting loss of smell. Datta was the lead author of a study that indicated that the novel coronavirus changes the sense of smell in patients not by directly infecting neurons but by affecting the function of supporting cells. Their study appeared in Science Advances in July.
So, toss aside your disappointment over some cake. The anxiety is heightened by never knowing you might be predisposed to something deadly or harmful. What about not being able to smell something burning in your house? What about not sensing a gas leak? Or feeling unsure if you have any body odors?
Interestingly, observations about the loss of taste and smell as a symptom of COVID-19 were noticed as early as May this year, when a Vanderbilt University faculty member mentioned this symptom to colleagues. Justin Turner, associate professor of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery and medical director of Vanderbilt University Medical Center’s Smell and Taste Center, said it was not uncommon for patients with viral upper respiratory infections to experience a temporary — or sometimes permanent — loss of taste or smell.” He also said, “These symptoms appear to be particularly prevalent in COVID-19.”
As the year 2020 winds to an end, it is still not certain the actual percentage of people hit with a loss of taste and smell as a result of COVID-19. Numbers have been all over the place, with some percentage citations as high as 80%; one systematic review said it was 62%.
Almost two-thirds of the people admitted to an Italian hospital with COVID-19 in March experienced losing their senses of smell and taste, according to a study published in the Dec. 9 online issue of Neurology, a journal of the American Academy of Neurology. Loss of smell and taste was present in 58 people, or 63% of the group. For 13 of the 58 participants (or 22%) the loss of smell and taste was their first symptom. The average duration of the loss of smell and taste was 25 to 30 days. In the Italy study, compared with corona virus-infected patients who had not lost their sense of smell and taste, the people with a compromised sense of smell had lower amounts of white blood cells, or leukocytes. A subset of white blood cells, neutrophils, was reduced. These cells help the body fight infection.
Study author Francesco Bax, of Santa Maria della Misericordia University Hospital in Udine, Italy, said, “For people whose first symptoms were loss of taste and smell, we found very few had nasal congestion, so we think obstruction of the nasal passages is an unlikely cause of these symptoms. However, the association between a blood cell imbalance and losing your sense of smell may help in identifying patients at risk.”
Short hauls and longer
While scientists raise their questions, victims ask how long will this taste and smell lockout last? Studies suggest that this symptom can last for up to four to six weeks, said Penn Medicine.
Dr. Mair, meanwhile, said, “While most people regain these senses after recovering from Covid-19, we are seeing some ‘long-haulers,’ or people who have symptoms for months, not regain their ability to smell and taste for extended periods of time.”
Some practitioners think that regularly smelling strong odors or essential odors may restore their olfactory system.