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COVID-related loss of taste and smell is reversible over time, study finds


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Great news for those who have lost some or all of their sense of smell or taste due to COVID-19: the effect, although lingering, does not appear to be permanent. A study conducted by the University of Trieste, Italy, found that despite the loss of taste and smell associated with COVID-19, gradual recovery and restoration of the senses occurs slowly over time.

In a research letter titled “Olfactory and taste function 3 years after mild COVID-19 — A psychophysical cohort study,” published in JAMA Otolaryngology – Head and Neck SurgeryThe team studied long-term loss of the ability to smell and taste in 88 people with mild COVID-19 symptoms who tested positive for SARS-CoV-2 in March and April 2020.

Psychophysical assessments were conducted 1, 2, and 3 years after SARS-CoV-2 infection using the Sino-nasal Outcome Test 22 (SNOT-22), the Sniffin’ Sticks Expanded Test Battery, and of the Taste Strips test.

In self-reported assessments using SNOT-22, smell or taste dysfunction decreased over 3 years. Starting from a maximum of 64.8% during the acute phase, dysfunction decreased to 31.8%, 20.5%, and 15.9% at one year, two years, and three years of follow-up, respectively.

The expanded Sniffin’ Sticks test battery saw dysfunction decrease to 40.9%, 27.3% and 13.6% after assessments at 1, 2 and 3 years, respectively. Taste strip tests were 26.1%, 13.6%, and 11.4% at the 1, 2, and 3-year assessments, respectively.

The study suggests a favorable rehabilitation of olfactory and taste function over the 3-year observation period, with taste showing lower frequency and faster recovery than smell.

Loss of the ability to taste and smell was such a common effect of the initial variety of SARS-CoV-2 that the symptom was considered an early diagnostic indicator before testing was widely available.

Besides decreasing the ability to enjoy favorite foods, loss of sense of smell can also be dangerous. Natural gas is artificially flavored so people can smell a leak before an accident happens. The smell of smoke can alert you to a fire before the sight of smoke is noticeable.

Most infected people are estimated to have experienced sensory loss during the first waves of the pandemic, consistent with current findings. Later variants have much less impact on taste and smell, with the omicron variant having almost no discernible impact.

For those who lost these senses, there was uncertainty about when or even if normal function would return. One of the many difficulties in managing a new infection like COVID-19 is that there is no clinical history to refer to or recovery time history to rely on. Fortunately, the current study reveals that the effects are not permanent and recovery occurs slowly.

More information:
Paolo Boscolo-Rizzo et al, Olfactory and taste function 3 years after mild COVID-19 — A psychophysical cohort study, JAMA Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery (2023). DOI: 10.1001/jamaoto.2023.3603


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