While the world has been living under the grip of the novel coronavirus for close to a full year now, there are still many things we don’t know about it. However, we may be a bit closer to understanding how the virus behind COVID-19 interacts with our bodies. One recent discovery has to do with how the coronavirus wreaks havoc on our sense of smell.
If we needed to make a choice and we are asked which of our five senses we would voluntarily do away with, chances are more than a few would pick their sense of smell over sight, hearing, touch, and taste, believing it may be the most expendable. But losing your sense of smell isn’t a matter of choice for COVID-19 sufferers — it is a definitive symptom for as many as 80 percent of patients who eventually test positive for the infectious disease (via Wall Street Journal).
COVID-19 can mess with a patient's sense of smell
During the early days of the pandemic, we were told to expect a fever, cough, or difficulty breathing if we had COVID-19. Today research out of Harvard indicates coronavirus patients are 27 times more likely to have a smelling problem, and only 2.2 to 2.6 times more likely to experience other symptoms. And while people can lose their sense of smell and taste when they have a cold or flu, those with COVID-19 don’t usually have stuffy noses (via University of California).
Many COVID patients recover their sense of smell within a week or two, but up to 20 percent of cases lose their sense of smell for longer. And when it returns, some COVID sufferers find that nothing is normal. Their favorite scents are no longer to their liking, some foods could smell like rotting meat, and this is when their condition goes from anosmia, or the loss of smell, to parosmia. That’s when the signals between the nerve cells in the nasal cavity which picks up scents, and the part of the brain which interprets odors get mixed up (via The Wall Street Journal).
"Nothing is accurate" former COVID-19 patient
Ironically, to have something that used to smell good smell revolting is a good sign in a COVID patient, because it means that the body is repairing any nerve damage which was caused by the coronavirus. But it may not feel that way to people who are going through it. Scientific American presents the case of Freya Sawbridge who was infected with COVID-19 in March, and after suffering through several weeks where she said everything tasted like ice cubes and cardboard, she began to pick up the basic tastes — sweet, salty and sour. After five months, all food smelled like artificial strawberries; now she says nothing smells right and there is a chemical smell everywhere. “Nothing is accurate, and the odors are all unpleasant. All my food tastes like it was sprayed with window cleaner,” Sawbridge says.
Doctors still aren't sure how long COVID-related anosmia will last
Because the virus hasn’t been around us for very long, doctors aren’t sure how long the anosmia will last. Carol Yan, a specialist at the University of San Diego says: “With long-term postviral smell loss from the flu, after six months, there is a 30 to 50 percent chance of spontaneous recovery” without any treatment. Yan says she’s even seen reports of people recovering after two years (via Scientific American).
Yan and other researchers are looking into ways of combatting anosmia, including platelet-rich plasma, but she admits experimental treatment results don’t exactly blow her away. “It’s not like you’ll wake up and say, ‘Wow, I can smell again.’ But if you can smell soap again or enjoy the taste of some foods, that’s a big gain,” she says.
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