Only around 5% of people infected with COVID-19 end up experiencing long-term problems with smell or taste, according to new research—but that still adds up to millions of people with a problem that can seriously affect their quality of life. In a study published in the British Medical Journal, researchers said an estimated 5.6% of COVID patients have smell dysfunction at least six months after infection and 4.4% have taste problems, the Guardian reports. Researchers said women are more likely to be affected than men—and people who had the most severe loss of smell and taste early in the infection are most likely to experience long-term problems.
"Loss of smell and taste adversely affects quality of life by depriving those affected of several everyday pleasures and social bonds," researchers wrote. "People can also experience anorexia, food aversions, malnutrition, anxiety, and depression." Dr. Aria Jafari, a rhinologist at the UW Medicine Sinus Center in Seattle, tells NBC that his patients "tend to be distraught about the loss of sense of smell. It’s such an important part of our every day and what makes us human." Jafari, who was not involved in the research, says he has treated a professional chef, a chocolatier, and others whose jobs depend on their sense of taste or smell.
Jafari says people who lose the sense of smell or taste are more likely to suffer depression and anxiety. He says many patients whose senses recover report a "distressing" transition period in which they smell smoke and other odors that aren't there. The researchers say their study relied on self-reported data and the true number of people experiencing long-term problems is probably much higher, Axios reports. The researcher said the only treatment shown to work is "olfactory training," ideally started as soon as possible after the onset of symptoms. Patients are "advised to sniff and try to identify a sequence of four strong smelling scents—usually rose, eucalyptus, lemon, and clove—for 15 seconds twice a day over the course of several months," they wrote. (Read more COVID-19 stories.)