Even though the world has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic for nearly two years, we're still learning about the virus and how it can affect our bodies. One area of understanding that has been particularly difficult to grasp has been the wide range of symptoms the virus can cause and how some can stick around long after recovery. Now, a new study has found that one symptom is having a long-term effect on about half of people who have caught COVID. Read on to see which ailment could be sticking around for a while after you've beaten the disease.
Nearly half of people with COVID suffer changes to their sense of smell as a long-term symptom.
The latest research comes from a team of scientists in Sweden looking to better understand one of the most bizarre and highlighted symptoms of COVID-19 infection: anosmia, or loss of smell. In a preprint study that has not been peer-reviewed, the researchers ran tests on 100 patients who had been infected with COVID during one of the earliest waves in Sweden in the spring of 2020.
Results showed that while only four percent of those sampled ever lost their sense of smell entirely, 33 percent of them had experienced a decreased ability to sense odors, and 49 percent of patients reported parosmia, which is the medical term for a distorted sense of smell, The Guardian reports. The team also ran the same tests on a control group of participants who tested negative for COVID antibodies, finding that one in five people showed lessened senses of smell, which shows how common smell disorders can be in the general population.
Ultimately, the researchers concluded that 65 percent of patients who eventually recovered from COVID-19 still suffered a complete loss, reduction, or significant change in their sense of smell 18 months after they initially caught the virus. Comparatively, only 20 percent of people who have never had COVID suffer any deficiency in their ability to smell.
The researchers concluded that the long-term changes are likely permanent.
The researchers point out that participants involved in the study were volunteer healthcare workers who were more likely to be tested for the virus early on in the pandemic. As such, everyone was infected by the earliest version of COVID-19, predating the variants that eventually evolved and changed some aspects of how the virus behaves. It also means that no one in the group had yet been vaccinated.
However, the researchers ultimately concluded that "given the amount of time since [the] initial insult to the olfactory system, it is likely that these olfactory problems are permanent."
A loss or change in your ability to smell could have effects on your health.
While studies established partial or total loss of smell to be relatively common during the early phases of the pandemic, some research has found that the latest version of the virus may not be likely to cause the same symptom. According to a study from the U.K. Health Security Agency, anosmia or parosmia were less than half as likely to be reported when infected with the currently dominant Omicron variant compared to the previous Delta variant. However, the authors of the Swedish study cited a lack of reliable data on Omicron's ability to affect someone's sense of smell and argue there's still a possibility someone who's infected could develop the symptom during the current surges, The Guardian reports.
According to Johan Lundströmm, PhD, the initial study's leader from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, long-term anosmia or parosmia can significantly affect a person's overall health more than one might expect. "When you cannot smell, all you can sense is the five basic taste qualities, tactile sensations, and spices," he said. "Unconsciously, people start to add more sugar and fat, or have an increased urge for fried food for the texture, all to get some enjoyment out of eating."
Some people may be able to work towards gaining their sense of smell back with training.
Even though the researchers say the long duration of the symptom is the most surprising finding from the study, Lundström explained that those whose sense of smell was affected can still see some improvement.
"Many of these individuals can get help by doing olfactory training," he told The Guardian. "They might not regain 100 percent of past performance, but most of them will, with training, get back to a point where their reduced sense of smell will not affect their lives."