Here’s How Long It Takes Taste & Smell to Return After You’ve Had COVID, Says New Study
It's one of the most elusive, disturbing, and lingering COVID symptoms. Now science is showing these probably will come back, but full sensory recovery could be years away.
One common tell-tale symptom that distinguishes COVID from other respiratory infections is its bizarre eradication of taste and smell. Even more disconcerting, the loss of these two senses—which are scientifically known as ageusia and anosmia, respectively—has been observed to persist far beyond the resolution of other symptoms, even among those experiencing long COVID.
In fact, one of the primary indicators that you might have had COVID without realizing it is the ongoing loss of taste and smell, even in the absence of other symptoms. Earlier this year, the National Institutes of Health noted research which had discovered COVID-19 can damage taste buds for some time.
But, for heaven’s sake: Just how much time? “Most people regain their smell in one to two weeks, but it can take over a year, and for some people, it may be permanent,” says Tran Locke, MD, an assistant professor of otolaryngology at Baylor College of Medicine and an anosmia specialist.
Dr. Locke notes “most people”—but what about the rest? A new study that kicked off at the start of the pandemic in 2020 has finally landed on a clearer answer.
Published November 2023 in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Otolaryngol Head Neck Surgery and conducted by researchers associated with Italian and German universities, the study suggests that there is hope for most ageusia and anosmia sufferers…but recovery could be years away.
The study involved 100 people who tested positive for COVID between March and April 2020, comparing their smell and taste ability with 100 people who had never tested positive for COVID. The COVID group was assessed for smell and taste using the aptly named Sino-nasal Outcome Test 22 (SNOT-22) and special taste and smell sticks.
Assessments were conducted during their period of infection and then again one, two, and three years later. (Notably, the study recruited people with mild COVID who represented the majority of the affected public population. These participants didn’t exhibit lower respiratory symptoms and weren’t likely to be hospitalized.)
While the loss of taste and smell isn’t a deadly effect of the virus, it can significantly impact a person’s quality of life (and even eating habits, which can directly affect health). The study revealed that 68% of the 100 participants experienced issues with taste and smell during the peak of COVID infection. This figure aligned with reported public health averages.
A year later, that rate had halved, with just over 31% still reporting issues at that point.
After two years, just over 20% still hadn’t regained their full sense. Another review after three years revealed that 16% were still having issues with taste and smell.
The study also uncovered that age was a factor as to whether some of the lost senses would return. Those under age 50 were more likely to score higher when using the taste strips that those over 50, indicating that age could be factor in when senses would return.
How to regain your senses of taste and smell
If you are among the 16% that are still experiencing a loss of senses after COVID infection more that three years later, you are clearly not alone. Plus, if these issues are COVID-related, there are techniques you can use to improve your senses.
First, consult a healthcare provider to assess whether your issues are COVID related or have another cause. Then, work to retrain your senses. One way is by smelling different stong scents a few times a day over several months.
“The idea is that if we can challenge those nerves with different smells, that will help them regrow in the proper fashion,” Greg Vanichkachorn, MD, MPH told the Mayo Clinic. Clove, lemon, eucalyptus and rose are the scents that are often administered in smell therapy. “What we recommend is that patients smell these substances for 15 seconds, twice a day, for several weeks or several months,” Dr. Vanichkachorn says, adding that this approach “has been associated with significant improvements in the ability to taste and smell.”
Other things that help, according to Dr. Locke, are flushing out your sinuses with a Neti pot or irrigator and focusing on scents throughout the day.
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