Sense of smell could take time to return for some COVID-19 patients

Dr. Evan Reiter, of VCU Health, on how COVID-19 affects taste

Losing sense of smell or taste is considered one of the hallmark symptoms of COVID-19 that could affect some of those who were infected. But whether that could be permanent for some who had the symptom is unclear.

Nearly 40% of COVID-19 patients with symptoms report a change in sense of smell and taste as one of their first or only symptoms, according to the medical director of the Smell and Taste Disorders Center at Virginia Commonwealth University Health.

“Just a loss of sense of smell is something not to be taken lightly. People should seek medical evaluation and even testing, given that testing is more available,” Dr. Evan Reiter said.

Reiter is concerned that some people might not realize that losing sense of smell can be a sign of COVID-19, even if no other symptoms are present, such as a fever, cough or gastrointestinal issues.

Dr. Even Reiter (Courtesy VCU Health)

“The good news, at least, is that it seems like in the majority of people, that sense of smell does recover in relatively short order,” Reiter said.

Two-thirds of patients reported improvements.

“I can’t say all, but at least a substantial amount of their smell function (returns) even within a couple weeks,” Reiter said.

Reiter is an otolaryngologist at VCU Health and the principal investigator on a loss of smell and taste study that published preliminary information in May and continues collecting data.

“We’re still in the processes of collecting more long-term data to see how many patients are in that group that doesn’t recover within a few weeks, and what is, sort of, the natural history of the disease from that point forward,” Reiter said.

He believes that there is a small percentage who had sufficient damage that the injury may be permanent. He has heard, anecdotally, from patients who got sick in March who still can’t smell.

Is there hope that the sense of smell may return?

Loss of sense of smell from head trauma or other viral infections can take as long as 18 months to return, Reiter pointed out in context.

Whether the loss of smell is brief or longer term, Reiter advised people to compensate for it.

“Making sure smoke detectors are checked and functioning and updated, and batteries checked, dating perishable food items. Seemingly simple things like that can have a big effect on someone’s well-being in the long run,” he said.

Currently, there is no proven method for restoring a lost sense of smell, but VCU School of Medicine professors Richard Costanzo, who has doctorate in physiology, and Dr. Daniel Coelho are working to develop an implant that would work similarly to how a cochlear implant helps with hearing.

According to the VCU website, “Costanzo, who also is developing a device that would restore the sense of taste, said such innovations are at the cusp of major advances.”

More Coronavirus news

Looking for more information? D.C., Maryland and Virginia are each releasing more data every day. Visit their official sites here: Virginia | Maryland | D.C.

Kristi King

Kristi King is a veteran reporter who has been working in the WTOP newsroom since 1990. She covers everything from breaking news to consumer concerns and the latest medical developments.

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