Chance of Smell Loss Through COVID-19 Is Now Significantly Reduced

New findings published in the Journal of Otolaryngology - Head & Neck Surgery now say the loss of smell is not a prevalent symptom of COVID-19, with new variants that have been created.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, more than 100 million cases of COVID-19 infected individuals across the United States. One common and distinguishing symptom of the virus was loss of smell, aside from fever and sore throat.

According to researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Medicine, the chance of losing a sense of taste or smell is currently only 6% to 7% of what it was during the pandemic's early phases.

"At the beginning of the pandemic, smell and taste loss were considered common symptoms of COVID-19. Before viral tests were readily accessible, we relied a lot more on such symptoms to diagnose those infected. However, as different variants of the COVID-19 virus have emerged, the types of symptoms most commonly experienced changed as well," says Evan Reiter, study author and medical director of VCU Health's Smell and Taste Disorders Center.

The prevalence of smell and taste loss as a viral symptom during each variation wave's peak periods of infection was calculated using a nationwide database of more than 7 million individuals who tested positive for COVID-19. The team discovered that for Alpha and Delta, both pervasive variants in 2021, the risks of smell loss from a COVID-19 infection were only 74% and 64% of what was seen in the early phases of the pandemic.

As Omicron types prevailed in 2022 and early 2023, they observed even more drastic drops in loss of scent. Compared to 2020 rates, the probability of smell loss from infection was as low as 6%.

"This data shows that smell and taste loss is no longer a reliable indicator of COVID‐19 infection," Reiter says. "This means that you can't rule out COVID-19 if you are feeling sick but haven't lost your sense of smell. This also means that if you have lost your sense of smell, it's not a guarantee that it's from a COVID-19 infection."

Higher immunity to the virus could contribute, but researchers do not yet understand why fewer people are losing their sense of smell with infection.

In a university news statement, Reiter says they don't yet know what is causing the decline in smell loss as a COVID-19 symptom but can hypothesize that it may be connected to the increased immunity to the virus, either from vaccinations or from having contracted it earlier, as this usually lessens the severity of subsequent infections.

He explains that there are still patients who have either entirely lost or have a distorted sense of smell, which can have a substantial negative impact on their quality of life, even though the danger of smell loss is far less common than in the early COVID-19 waves.

Reiter concludes: "Luckily, there is a lot of work being done in hopes of finding an effective treatment for those affected by this condition."

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