COVID-19 School of Medicine

Millions of COVID-19 survivors have lost senses of smell and taste. Researchers don’t know if they’ll come back

Edelmira Rivera was lying on her bed with her husband and 16-month-old son, selecting a movie when she heard a loud bang outside their home in Waco, Texas.

Her sister screamed, “Fire!”

“I dropped everything and just grabbed my son and his blanket,” said Rivera, 22. “I could not smell anything. I was so shocked to see the fire at the front door.”

Rivera tested positive for COVID-19 and lost her sense of smell Jan. 14. Early the next morning, a fire broke out on the other side of her bedroom wall, less than a foot from where she was lying. Rivera couldn’t smell it, nor could the family of four who was staying with them.

Her sister, Bianca, 19, smelled something burning from the other side of the house, initially thinking her sister had burned popcorn in the kitchen. When she smelled burning plastic, Bianca Rivera walked out of her room and saw smoke in the hallway. She quickly ushered seven people and three dogs out of the home before fire consumed it.

Like Edelmira Rivera, millions of people worldwide have suffered changes to their sense of smell or taste after contracting COVID-19. In most cases, the symptoms usually last only a few weeks.

A year into the pandemic, researchers aren’t sure when some COVID-19 survivors may get their senses back – if ever – and the loss carries long-term safety, hygiene and psychiatric implications.

“As the pandemic has rolled on, we’ve gotten a better idea about the long-term, chronic effects of COVID on smell and taste,” said Dr. Jay Piccirillo, an ENT and professor at the Washington University School of Medicine who studies the topic. “The things we’ve learned suggest that most people recover smell and taste, but not all.”

A million new survivors with chronically diminished senses?

In the coming year, there will be at least a million new cases of people in the USA with chronically diminished senses of smell or taste because of COVID-19, Piccirillo predicted.

Studies published by the National Library of Medicine and the Journal of Internal Medicine suggest up to 80% of people who have COVID-19 symptoms experience smell or taste dysfunction. Some experience reduced ability to smell or taste. Some have a complete loss. And some experience distorted senses – certain tastes and smells change or become unpleasant – an increasingly common outcome, called “parosmia.”