A recent study by a team of UK scientists reveals that loss of taste and smell following infection with severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the pathogen causing the 2019 coronavirus (COVID-19) negatively impacts quality of life and well-being mental health problems of people who recover but experience persistence of this symptom. The study is currently available on medRxiv * pre-print server.
The olfactory system malfunction is a common consequence of viral infections. Research has shown that approximately 56% of viral patients develop abnormal odor sensations, including parosmia (distorted odor detection) and phantosmia (odors that are not actually present). Such odor disturbances are known to disrupt overall quality of life as most patients experience unpleasant or bad odors constantly.
Loss of smell and taste sensation has also been found to be a common symptom in COVID-19 patients. Although most COVID-19 patients regain sensation within weeks of infection, approximately 10% of patients report long-term complications including phantosmia, olfactory disturbances, altered taste sensations (distorted taste sensations), and altered chemesthesia (chemical sensitivity).
As a countermeasure to reduce the emotional stress associated with loss of smell / taste in COVID-19 patients, the UK charity AbScent, ENT UK and the British Rynological Society have developed some useful resources including COVID-19 Smell and Taste Losing a Facebook group .
Current study design
To address the effects of COVID-19-related olfactory and taste dysfunctions, researchers in the current study enrolled a total of 9,000 members of the Facebook online community. The study was conducted from March 24 to September 30, 2020.
The researchers initially analyzed Facebook posts and comments from all participants, and then asked participants to write down their personal experiences of altered sensory perception.
Difficulty understanding, explaining and managing the symptom
Strikingly, the results of the study highlighted the pervasive impact of loss of sense of smell / taste on the overall quality of life and mental well-being of a large number of people who recovered from COVID-19. Most of the participants reported difficulties in understanding, explaining, and coping with the altered smell / taste sensations. The most puzzling fact was the sudden onset of such symptoms. Many of the participants felt like living with an “invisible disease” that significantly disrupted their daily routine. In some patients, the severity of symptoms differed from day to day.
As many participants mentioned, one of the biggest challenges was explaining to others the emotional aspects of the loss of smell / taste. This is partly due to the invisible nature of the symptom. Therefore, many participants reported a lack of empathy and support from others. They even reported that they didn’t have any medical help or support from health professionals. However, at the end of the study period, most participants mentioned that the Facebook group significantly helped them gather valuable information about the loss of sense of smell / taste and found ways to deal with the situation.
Altered eating behavior
The most important symptom-related problem was food consumption and eating pleasure, the participants reported. Anosmia, parosmia and phantosmia have been found to be the main drivers of altered eating behavior. These altered eating behavior influenced the participants in two ways. For some participants, it increased food consumption, especially junk food / unhealthy snacks. In contrast, some participants reported intense apathy related to eating, which in turn led to significant weight loss.
As eating and sharing food with family and friends is so enjoyable and strengthens social bonds, many participants with altered eating behavior reported a lack of pleasure from social engagement and altered social intimacy.
Changed connection with the surroundings
Since the sense of smell is one of the main senses that connect people to their surroundings, other people, and also to themselves, it was found that altered sense of smell significantly influenced the participants’ experiences. They talked about feeling lonely, social and personal distance and unreality. Another important aspect was that many participants reported that they were unable to detect immediate dangers such as not being able to sense smoke or other toxic odors.
The importance of the study
Based on these findings, researchers believe that loss of smell / taste should not be considered a mild symptom in COVID-19 survivors. Given the significant impact of the symptom on overall quality of life, the authorities concerned should take extensive action to ensure public awareness and support systems. In addition, medical staff should be more attentive and support those suffering from COVID-19 so that they can overcome the disadvantages of altered sensory perception.
* Important note
medRxiv publishes preliminary scientific reports which are not peer reviewed and therefore should not be taken as conclusive, guiding clinical practice / health behavior, or taken as established information.