It may still be a few years before the clearest picture of the pandemic's impact on our health emerges. But one new study focuses on the not-often-discussed group of people who never regained, or only partially regained their sense of smell and taste after having COVID.

The study looked at data from the National Health Interview Survey, an annual report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and it found that around 60% of people infected with COVID reported a loss of smell, and 58% reported a loss of taste. Of those, 72% reported that they fully recovered their sense of smell, while around a quarter said they had experienced some persistent dulling of their sense of smell long after they cleared their infections. And 3% reported never recovering their sense of smell.

In total, the study estimates that some 28 million Americans experienced some prolonged loss of one or both senses after having COVID.

Neil Bhattacharyya, professor of otolaryngology at Mass Eye and Ear, led the study, and as WBUR reports, Dr. Bhattacharyya was inspired to conduct the study after meeting patients who experienced significant weight loss as a result of losing their senses. In particular, he said he met one patient who became extremely depressed as a result and lost 50 pounds.

"From a national health perspective, I mean, we have millions of people without their sense of smell," said Bhattacharyya, speaking to WBUR. "What does that mean for detecting a gas leak? What does it mean for detecting rancid food, smelling a soiled diaper? There's going to be a lot of quality of life impact, I think, down the line for this."

The study was limited only to data from 2021, so it pertained primarily to those people exposed to the earliest variants of COVID — and it does not cover whether some of those patients experienced recovery of their senses later on, after December 2021.

"The value of this study is that we are highlighting a group of people who have been a bit neglected,” Bhattacharyya said, speaking to the Boston Herald. “Losing your sense of smell or taste isn’t as benign as you may think. It can lead to decreased eating for pleasure and, in more extreme cases, it can lead to depression and weight loss.”

Bhattacharyya tells WBUR that there are some treatments, like retraining therapy, available to patients. But doctors around the country are only "starting to realize the magnitude of this problem" right now.

Photo: Jyoti Singh