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Over 1 Million Americans Might Never Be Able to Smell Again

Thanks to COVID-19.

If you had COVID-19, you may have lost your sense of smell – it’s one of the most widespread symptoms. But that loss can apparently last much longer than the initial illness in some people who’ve had the disease.

That may not be such a rare occurrence either. Researchers at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis estimated that COVID-19 related smelling issues could affect between hundreds of thousands to over a million Americans, Gizmodo reports. The researchers published their calculations as a research letter this week in JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery.

To make their estimate, they relied on numbers from two other papers – one for an estimate of how many people with COVID had smelling problems and one for an estimate of how many of those people failed to regain a normal sense of smell. The first determined that about 52.5% of COVID patients have smelling trouble, and the second determined that about 95.3% of those patients had recovered six months out.

Using those numbers, plus the total number of COVID cases in the US between January 2020 and March 2021, the researchers estimated that about 700,000 Americans could be living with long-term smelling issues. But that’s just a middle estimate – when they factored in the probable range of both smelling loss and recovery rate, they guessed that anywhere from 170,000 to 1.6 million Americans are now living with COVID-derived loss of smell.

Anosmia – the scientific word for lacking a sense of smell – is often one of the telltale signs of coronavirus infection, Gizmodo points out. Post-COVID patients have also been known to suffer from parosmia, where instead of losing your sense of smell, smells end up being replaced by other, often disgusting, odors, the publication notes.

Don’t blow off your sense of smell either – it’s a bigger part of your life than you might imagine. Smelling can be important for judging the freshness of food. (Ever sniff the milk carton?) The paper authors also note that smelling can help us notice smoke or gas, and even our own stench.

This paper shows that there may be plenty of people now lacking this important sense. And while there are some treatments that might help restore normal smell function, they’re not universally effective, CNN reports. The authors stress that smelling issues could be an “emerging public health concern” and stress the need for further research.