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January 11, 2021

Research highlights impact of Covid-19 on smell and taste

What researchers learned from patients' own reports.

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This is a lay summary of a preprint at medRxiv 2020.11.26.20239152

Altered Smell and Taste: anosmia, parosmia and the impact of long Covid-19

Authors: Duika L Burges Watson, Miglena Campbell, Claire Hopkins, Barry Smith, Chris Kelly, Vincent Deary
 

Changes to the sense of smell after a viral infection are not new, but have become more widely discussed as it is now a recognised symptom of COVID-19. Olfactory loss can affect many aspects of a person’s life: their relationship with food, their well-being,  and their personal relationships. As well as a loss of smell, people with post-viral olfactory dysfunction often experience parosmia (distortions to smell that are usually unpleasant ) and phantosmia (smelling things where there is no odour present). Although most people with COVID-19 related olfactory dysfunction regain their sense of smell within weeks, around 10 per cent report persistent problems.

In this first paper of its kind, researchers analysed posts on a COVID-19 smell loss support group on Facebook. The aim was to understand the impact that post-COVID alterations to taste and smell have on people’s lives. 

The researchers analysed the posts made between 24 March and 30 September 2020, and categorised the posts into key themes. These themes were then presented back to the Facebook group as questions, with users asked to share their observations.

People shared their experiences related to food enjoyment and changes in weight as a result, changes to their feelings about themselves, anxiety around body odour, and changes to their perception of partners’ smells affecting intimacy. The study showed that olfactory dysfunction as a result of COVID-19 has a wide-ranging impact on people’s lives.

Until now, focus has been on COVID-19 transmission and serious illness, and the role of smell changes in the disease  has been largely undiscussed. A  historic neglect of smell disorders and lack of treatments means that and COVID-19 has the potential to leave many people around the world struggling with olfactory dysfunction.

Due to a lack of support and advice through usual healthcare routes, people tend to seek out support organisations, including those such as AbScent and its Facebook groups. AbScent, ENT UK and the British Rhinological Society (BRS) have also collaborated in developing a range of resources to support people. These can be found at AbScent.org/NoseWell.

From this important research, the researchers conclude: “The impact of Covid-19 on the senses cannot be viewed as a mild effect, particularly given the impacts may last for months. Covid-19 related sensory upheaval has serious implications for food, eating, health, work and well-being and for some is a profound existential assault disturbing their relationship to self, others and the world. … Our research suggests that the impact of smell and tastes alteration is far reaching and concerning, and that any future research or interventions need to take this broader impact of sensory disruption into consideration.”

Click through to read the full preprint here