Newer COVID-19 variants less likely to cause smell and taste loss

·3 min read

Story at a glance

  • A new study has found newer variants of COVID-19, like omicron, are less likely to cause smell and taste loss.

  • Omicron has only a 17 percent chance of smell and taste loss, compared to 44 percent for delta and 50 percent for the alpha variant.

  • Researchers are also developing an implant device that could help restore a loss of smell and taste.

Many Americans considered a sudden loss of smell and tase a telltale sign of a positive COVID-19 infection, but new research indicates that may no longer be the case. As the coronavirus mutates into new variants, the likelihood that an infected person loses their sense of smell and taste seems to decrease.

Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) analyzed a national database of more than 3.5 million cases of positive COVID-19 infections and published their results in the journal Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery. It showed that compared to rates of smell and taste loss during the early phase of the pandemic in 2020, the chances have significantly dropped as new variants have developed.

With the omicron variant, the chances of smell and taste loss were just 17 percent, compared to 44 percent for delta and 50 percent for the alpha variant.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the omicron variant and its accompanying subvariants make up nearly 100 percent of all current COVID-19 cases in the U.S.

That could have a huge impact for health care providers and patients that develop a COVID-19 infection.

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“This is not just about being able to enjoy a fine bottle of wine again; it’s about safety and preserving your quality of life,” said Daniel Coelho, lead author of the study and a professor at VCU school of medicine.

“Our research shows that more than 50% of people suffering from smell and taste loss have reported feeling depressed. Patients with smell loss also have a higher rate of dementia. Fewer people experiencing these symptoms means fewer people being impacted by mood changes and cognitive problems.”

Coelho’s team focused on the six-week period in which cases were highest for each variant studied and compared how many patients were diagnosed with smell and taste loss during those peak timeframes. VCU estimates roughly 6.3 million people reported a loss of smell due to a COVID-19 infection.

Most people who lost their sense of smell and taste during a COVID-19 infection eventually regain it within 60 days of recovery, according to the Cleveland Clinic. Even without COVID-19, the clinic estimated more than 1 in 10 Americans may have a smell or taste disorder.

Lack of smell and taste can put people at risk for malnutrition, dehydration and unhealthy weight loss. It can also drive people to add too much sugar or salt to their foods—increasing their risk of diabetes and high blood pressure.

It could also prevent people from being able to smell fire and smoke, natural gas or harmful chemicals at home or nearby surroundings.

That’s why researchers at VCU have emphasized the impact their study can have in figuring out what part of the molecular structure of the COVID-19 virus causes the olfactory system to decline, the bodily structures that serve the sense of smell.

“Unlocking what causes smell and taste loss in the first place will help us better determine how to treat it,” said Coelho.

Researchers are also exploring if vaccination status plays a role in the reduced rates of smell loss.

There may be hope for those that are still struggling with smell and taste loss, as Coelho and other researchers are developing an implant device that would restore the body’s sense of smell. It would work similar to specialized hearing devices, like a cochlear implant, using an external sensor and internal processor to detect and transmit information and stimulate applicable brain regions.

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