From the earliest days of the global pandemic, one of the most common symptoms of a COVID-19 infection has also been on of the oddest: a loss of the sense of smell, more technically known as olfactory dysfunction. That symptom has often been treated as something of a minor side effect of the illness, and when the serious effects can include death, it is easy to overlook almost anything else.
The loss of a sense of smell or taste has also been regarded as a temporary effect. However, as a report from the Journal of the American Medical Association reports, that may not be the case. Loss of smell and taste turns out to be more persistent than anyone really expected. The number of people suffering from chronic olfactory dysfunction lasting at least six months may already be over 1 million. And as the pandemic drags on, that number is only increasing.
As the number of noseless Americans increases, the results can be surprisingly widely reaching. And dangerous. And disheartening. And also kind of disgusting.
There are only six senses, (proprioception, look it up) so it seems like the loss of one should be at the top of any list of threats from COVID-19. Sure, COVID-19 can cause blindness, hearing loss, or even loss of the sense of touch, but loss of the senses of smell and taste are common symptoms of the disease.
If human beings were more like dogs (we wish), this kind of threat would be sounding all the sirens. And then we’d all be howling … because sirens. But people definitely don’t rate these two senses at the top of the got-to-have-them sense hierarchy.
Still, while it’s certainly possible to negotiate the world without a sense of smell or taste, it’s not exactly pleasant. As Healthline notes, people who have lost these senses have lost a lot of the joy that comes from eating great food. They’ve lost the excitement of catching a whiff of a familiar perfume or the pleasure from inhaling the steam of a morning coffee. They’ve lost the satisfaction of opening a door and smelling the familiar scent that means home.
They’ve also lost some critical survival skills. Like detecting the scent that lets them know a carton of milk has gone bad, or that a just-opened can of stew contains dangerous bacteria.
When asked what he liked to eat for dinner, one man suffering from anosmia gave a blunt answer: “It doesn’t matter. You can put anything in a skillet and fry it up, and I wouldn’t know the difference.”
That might help with weight loss. It might even increase the sale of parsnips. But it’s certainly not going to do much for the business at restaurants already beaten up by the effects of the pandemic. In fact, people who lose their sense of smell can become so disinterested in food that they suffer from malnutrition.
Some sufferers can also become socially isolated because when you have no sense of smell, it’s easy to forget that’s not true of others. The personal grooming necessary to address body odors and bad breath can be easy to overlook.
There are other dangers from not being able to preform a chemical analysis on the surrounding atmosphere using sensors in your nose. People without a sense of smell can’t smell the pan that’s been left on the stove, or the wiring that’s begun to melt, or the cigarette smoldering in the trash. One of the reasons that older Americans are much more likely to die in a fire is because older people are more likely to have a decreased sense of smell, so they can’t smell smoke or other odors that could allow them to escape in time.
The same thing goes for gas leaks. Natural gas is odorless, but more than a century ago the threat that it represented was seen to be great enough that the noxious odor of mercaptan was added in trace amounts. It’s mercaptan that generates that distinctive smell of a gas leak. Or at least it does for those who can smell. Making gas appliances safe for those without a sense of smell can take extra sensors and careful design.
Losing a sense of smell can be dangerous, and can generate dangers for those around the person who has become suddenly smell-less. But the bigger threat may simply be the isolation and depression that losing smell or taste creates. When all food is bland—when every place, every person, every flower smells the same—it can lead to a lack of desire for intimacy, to feelings of isolation, and to powerful depression. As the condition persists, people can even lose the ability to recall scent memories, losing one of the strongest ties to moments from childhood and beyond.
Anosmia affects many people as they grow older, and it’s a very unpleasant aspect of aging for those affected. But COVID-19 is changing this symptom into something that many Americans suffer much earlier in life. By August of this year, the number of Americans suffering from long term loss of smell was already up by 12%. That was before the delta surge. The ongoing high levels of disease could be adding thousands of Americans to the list of sufferers every day.
That’s not a tragedy in the way that the 800,000 deaths is a tragedy. But it’s still a tragedy.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.