For millions of people, the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over.
Roughly one in four people who were sick with COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic have yet to regain their sense of smell or taste.
That’s the startling finding of a new study published in The Laryngoscope.
Though the loss of smell and taste seems like a curious quirk or a novelty, medical experts disagree.
“Losing your sense of smell or taste isn’t as benign as you may think,” said Neil Bhattacharyya, a professor at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, in a journal news release.
“It can lead to decreased eating for pleasure and, in more extreme cases, it can lead to depression and weight loss,” Dr. Bhattacharyya added.
One of Dr. Bhattacharyya’s patients lost 50 pounds due to his loss of smell and taste.
“The patient wasn’t eating and became very sick and very depressed,” Dr. Bhattacharyya, a co-author of the study, told Fortune.
“The classic thing patients tell me is that food tastes like cardboard,” he added.
And for some, the loss of taste or smell can have severe consequences if, for example, they can’t smell a gas leak or a house fire, or if their career depends on taste and smell.
Last year, “Top Chef: Houston” competitor Jackson Kalb revealed he lost his sense of taste after contracting COVID-19 — just days before he was set to compete on the reality show.
Eight months later, the chef said his taste had returned 100 percent, although he was “not sure.”
The latest study looked at data from the 2021 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), which includes survey information from almost 30,000 adults across the United States.
The survey data showed that in 2021, 35.8 million people — about 14 percent of the adult U.S. population — had been diagnosed with COVID-19.
Of those people, 60.5 percent reported a loss of smell, and 58.2 percent reported a loss of taste. These symptoms were especially common among people with more severe cases of COVID-19 infection.
By the end of 2021, almost 25 percent of them still hadn’t fully recovered their full senses of smell or taste, and more than 3 percent didn’t recover them at all.
Once again, people with more severe cases were more likely to have an incomplete recovery — or none at all.
“The value of this study is that we are highlighting a group of people who have been a bit neglected,” Dr. Bhattacharyya said.
Another important outcome of the study is the evidence that getting vaccinated — and taking Paxlovid if you’re infected with the coronavirus — is the best way to avoid losing your senses of smell and taste.
Both the vaccine and the antiviral Paxlovid have been proven to reduce the severity of COVID-19 symptoms, the study authors noted.
Fortunately, the loss of smell and taste with COVID-19 infections might be a thing of the past.
Researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond have found that the newer variants of the coronavirus now circulating present a much lower risk of smell and taste loss.
In 2022 and early 2023, as Omicron variants dominated, the risk of smell loss from infection was as low as 6 percent compared with earlier 2020 variants.
Higher immunity to the coronavirus could be a factor in this decline, Evan Reiter, medical director of VCU Health’s Smell and Taste Disorders Center and lead author of the new study, said in a news release.
“We don’t have the data on what’s causing this decline in smell loss as a symptom of COVID-19, but … this might be related to our increased immunity to the virus, either through vaccines or having an earlier infection, as this typically helps reduce the severity of future infections,” Dr. Reiter said.