Presently, the novel coronavirus outbreak has reached a stage in which a lot of patients are experiencing a lack of smell and taste. It is one of the primary symptoms of COVID-19, and most of the people are recovering within a couple of weeks. However, some patients are complaining of severity in this case. They are experiencing substantial alterations to flavors and odors that were familiar previously.
In this context, a Harvard neuroscientist, Dr. Sandeep Robert Datta, says that a lack of smell and taste is a common symptom of any flu, not necessarily the coronavirus. However, in the latter case, the symptoms are a little different and a bit more severe. Dr. Datta is also the co-author of the latest research report regarding loss of smell, also known as anosmia. The report has been published as a part of Advanced Scientific study material.
In an interview with TODAY, Dr. Datta reveals that the primary reason a person experiences loss of smell and taste during a viral infection is simple. It is because of a temporary alteration in the mucus composition when the person catches the flu. As a result, there is a feeling of stuffiness inside the nose. Now, when the recovery process starts, the mucus composition also gets back to normal. Therefore, you can taste and smell once again. However, in the case of COVID-19, the theory seems to be a bit more complicated.
In-depth knowledge about the loss of smell and taste during COVID-19
According to a piece of research from July, 55 COVID-19 patients experiencing smell and taste impairment were under observation. Four weeks later, most of the patients reported either partial or complete recovery from their impairment. However, 11% of the patients under observations said that their problem remains the same. Moreover, there are reports of worsening during the weeks too. According to a rough estimation done by Dr. Datta, most of the COVID-19 survivors who are complaining of a smell and taste impairment recover within two to six weeks maximum. He adds that only a minimal number of patients experience anosmia for a longer span. Several people say that they have still not got back their senses. These are the same people who were tested positive right at the beginning of the COVID-19 period.
Dr. Datta says that there are exceptional cases as well. For example, some people do not complain of a total loss. According to them, they are experiencing a considerable alteration in their smell and taste senses. Now, this symptom is known as parosmia. Suppose, you have got back your smelling sensation. However, your old shampoo now has a different scent, according to you, next to impossible. The feeling is majorly disconcerting too. As per the research report curated by Dr. Datta, the problem, as mentioned above, may have a particular root cause. There is a possibility that the coronavirus may have caused a severe infection that also includes the support cells in the nose. Well, he mentions clearly that the support cells are not the ones that can detect a fragrance. However, they are ones responsible for helping other neurons to function correctly.
Study of sensory neurons and support cells
According to Dr. Datta and his co-author, there are chances that the other sensory neurons may be dead due to the constant lack of help from the so-called support cells. As a result, certain patients complain of prolonged anosmia in comparison to others. In this scenario, treatment becomes complicated, and there is a requirement of the regeneration of the dysfunctional sensory neurons. Moreover, if a person is suffering from COVID-19 under these circumstances, recovery may take a considerable amount of time.
Experts say that parosmia may arise once again when the sensory neurons’ regeneration process is taking place. During this time, they are reborn and trying to reimplement themselves into the olfactory system of the body all over again. Dr. Datta also referred to the taste impairment and gave his opinion. He said that the infection is the primary reason for a loss of taste too. Moreover, the core theory is similar to that of anosmia in this case also. However, it is still not clear why some people recover sooner than others.
Can you expect to recover from a smell and taste impairment normally ever?
For the majority of COVID-19 survivors, gaining back their taste and smell sensation is easier. However, some patients are experiencing a more severe problem, and there is uncertainty regarding when they will gain back their feeling. Dr. Datta assures everyone that total recovery of parosmia is possible, although it takes some time. You have to wait until the refinement process of the regrowth of the dysfunctional sensory neurons. Experts report that there is still very little medical evidence to back Dr. Datta’s theory. However, scientists and doctors hope to reach the precise root cause and the treatment of such impairment issues soon. Besides, the smell is indeed an underrated sense, but it is imperative.
There are other theories and pieces of research, including that of Mount Sinai’s post-COVID care Center’s otolaryngologist Dr. Alfred Iloreta. According to him, experts must also consider the handful of patients whose parosmia is permanent. It means that in the case of these patients, the smell and taste impairment is permanent. It is essential to take such cases for a neutral conclusion regarding the study of such issues. Dr. Iloreta says that he often tells his patients to prepare for a permanent loss.
How is the experience of alterations in smell and taste sensations?
Dr. Iloreta, in an interview with TODAY, talks about the different types of cases under his observation in recent times. These are all people who are experiencing parosmia or anosmia, along with taste impairment. Dr. Iloreta reveals that, according to him, the spectrum of presentations in this context is pretty extensive. While some patients report decreasing perception of odor and flavors, others say that there are alterations in their sensations.
One of the most common symptoms that he has noticed in patients is a constant burning, smoky, or fire smell. On the other hand, some patients also complain of a bitter or foul-smelling, which can resonate with the odor of feces. The same patients have often complained of taste impairment as well. The evident reason is that both the sensations have a very close link. Such a combination of issues may have a considerable impact on the appetite of a person too. Surprisingly, there is a standard part of reports of both Dr. Iloreta and Dr. Datta. They both believe that a loss of smell welcomes anxiety and depression.
Can you do something if you are experiencing smell and taste loss?
In this context, Dr. Datta has proposed smell training. It means that a patient experiencing a prolonged lack of smell will have to go through rigorous therapy. He/she will have to try and associate themselves with a set of odors familiar to them. The practice must be regular, helping them to strengthen their perception. On the other hand, Dr. Iloreta is prescribing a high-dosage fish oil capsule to patients who are experience loss of smell.
He feels that there are chances that there will be some recovery after the consumption of the fish oil supplement. Besides, fish oil contains inflammatory characteristics that may help in the promotion of neuron growth. So, if you also want to take up this experiment, you can consult with a doctor who will assist you further. Other uncertain strategies that can be put to research include the usage of nasal steroids, such as Flonase.