The impact goes way beyond enjoying food—and can lead to depression, anxiety, and isolation.

By Mike Pomranz
January 05, 2021
Advertisement

We know COVID-19 can be deadly, but as a new disease, we also face the fear of the unknown: What long-term effects can the illness have that we're only now beginning to understand? A loss of smell and taste has emerged as one of coronavirus's telltale symptoms, a growing number of accounts suggest that this loss may be permanent for a small group of patients.

Doctors aren't positive how the virus causes anosmia—the loss of smell and its accompanying loss of taste—and most patients report recovering within weeks, but for some unfortunate sufferers, these senses have not returned since their diagnosis, and it's unclear if they ever will, according to the New York Times.

Credit: Halfpoint/Getty Images

"Many people have been doing olfactory research for decades and getting little attention," Dolores Malaspina, professor of psychiatry, neuroscience, genetics, and genomics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, told the paper. "COVID is just turning that field upside down."

Most alarming, is that the effects go beyond simply not being able to enjoy your favorite food or drink. Doctors say that smell is tied to all sorts of emotional responses from the obvious—like the smell of a perfume—to the more subconscious scents of our surroundings. "I feel discombobulated—like I don't exist," one patient reportedly posted to a Facebook support group in an especially devastating realization. "I can't smell my house and feel at home. I can't smell fresh air or grass when I go out. I can't smell the rain."

"You think of it as an aesthetic bonus sense…. But when someone is denied their sense of smell, it changes the way they perceive the environment and their place in the environment. People's sense of well-being declines," Sandeep Robert Datta, an associate professor of neurobiology at Harvard Medical School, told the Times. "From a public health perspective, this is really important… If you think worldwide about the number of people with COVID, even if only 10 percent have a more prolonged smell loss, we're talking about potentially millions of people."

The health impacts range from the short-term—like a loss of appetite, which can lead to nutritional problems—to deeper emotional issues like depression, isolation, and anxiety. A loss of smell can even pose an immediate danger whether it's spoiled food, a fire, or a gas leak.

As a result, much like everything else COVID-related, scientists and doctors are scrambling for ways to help those afflicted with pandemic-induced anosmia, including potential treatments and even "smell training" where patients learn to smell things correctly again.

And overall, these traumatizing stories serve as a reminder that fighting the pandemic goes beyond preventing deaths. "People have been focused on mortality rates," Ashraf Fawzy, a pulmonary disease and critical care doctor at Johns Hopkins, told The Baltimore Sun. "But it's important to keep in mind that there are a lot of people who survive the infection, whether or not they needed hospitalization, but end up with debilitating and life-altering residual aftereffects."