Millions of Americans stricken with COVID-19 in 2021 may not have fully recovered their senses of smell and taste after contracting the virus, according to a new study from researchers at Mass Eye and Ear.
The study, published in The Laryngoscope, a peer-reviewed medical journal, culled data from the CDC’s National Health Interview Survey, which included information on nearly 30,000 adults who were diagnosed with the infectious disease, the hospital said in a statement.
The survey asked patients about their symptoms, as well as any loss of taste or smell and recovery of those senses, according to the hospital.
Researchers found that roughly 60 percent of survey participants experienced a loss of smell after contracting the virus, while 58 percent reported an initial loss of taste, the hospital said.
Approximately 72 percent of affected patients fully recovered their sense of smell, but 24 percent had just a partial recovery, while nearly 4 percent made no recovery.
“That amounted to almost 28 million Americans potentially left with a decreased sense of smell after COVID infection,” the hospital said.
Among patients who lost their sense of taste, roughly 76 percent fully recovered it, while 20 percent regained it partially and more than 2 percent never recovered their taste at all.
“We wanted to quantify the national impact of smell disorders resulting from COVID,” study coauthor Dr. Neil Bhattacharyya, professor of otolaryngology at Mass Eye and Ear, said in the statement.
Otolaryngology is a medical specialty that focuses on the ears, nose, and throat.
“With this data we can understand, in big numbers, how many people lost their sense of smell or taste due to COVID infection and how many people never fully recovered those senses,” Bhattacharyya said.
He said one motivator for the study was a patient he had seen who shed 50 pounds due to smell loss.
“The patient wasn’t eating and became very sick and very depressed because of the loss of smell,” Bhattacharyya said. “When you hear about COVID-related smell loss, you think most people get it back and are fine. But there is a substantial number of people who don’t recover it.”
Researchers said there’s currently no standard treatment for smell and taste loss but they hope the data can help medical providers “counsel” patients experiencing such loss and track recovery rates.
“The value of this study is that we are highlighting a group of people who have been a bit neglected,” Bhattacharyya said. “Losing your sense of smell or taste isn’t as benign as you may think. It can lead to decreased eating for pleasure and, in more extreme cases, it can lead to depression and weight loss.”
Dr. Jai Marathe, director of the ReCOVer Long COVID Clinic and a infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center, said the study reflects what she is personally seeing in patients, and builds upon efforts to raise awareness of long COVID and help those who are suffering from it.
Recovery “does not look the same” for everyone, Marathe said.
Correspondent Emma Obregón Domínguez contributed to this report.
Travis Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.