As we’ve seen more and more throughout this pandemic, COVID is not a one-and-done kind of virus. Right now, a staggering number of people are experiencing reinfections while others struggle under the weight of lingering symptoms. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), many individuals are developing long COVID from their infections, which can cause certain symptoms to stick around for weeks, months, or even years. Some of the most common long-term effects include fatigue, brain fog, and sleep problems. But now, experts are sounding the alarm on one “dangerous” long COVID symptom that many people might not even realize they’re experiencing. Read on to find out what you should pay extra attention to if you’ve had COVID.
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More and more research indicates that long COVID is far from a rare development. Interim result released June 21 from a long-term Dutch study just revealed that around 50 percent of all the patients enrolled in this large study still have one or more COVID symptoms three months after being first infected with the virus. At the same time, new data from the CDC’S National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) found that nearly one in five U.S. COVID survivors are have some version of long COVID. The condition is “defined as symptoms lasting three or more months after first contracting the virus, and that they didn’t have prior to their COVID-19 infection,” per the CDC.
You could also be experiencing long COVID and not even know it. Kai Zhao, PhD, director of the Nasal Physiology and Therapeutic Center in the Department of Otolaryngology at Ohio State University College of Medicine, recently told Pharmacy Times that loss of smell or taste is a common long-lasting symptom of the virus. Zhao was also the senior author of a May 2022 study published in the Med journal, which analyzes the prolongation of loss of smell and taste years after an initial COVID infection.
“Some of our patients who have COVID, even during the first wave, which is March 2020—they still have smell loss,” he told the news outlet. “We don’t know exactly for each patient how long they can have it, but we think there could be a range of symptoms with this duration—some could recover very quickly, [such as] in a few days or even two weeks, [but] some could persist over months, even years.”
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The main concern isn’t necessarily how many are experiencing loss of smell or taste—or the fact that this symptom can last for years. Instead, Zhao warned that this long COVID problem is actually going undetected by many people. According to the health expert, about 50 percent of patients previously infected with COVID who did not report ongoing smell or taste loss were “objectively” found to have smell loss when tested.
“Many people who had COVID in the past, probably with the original variants of the virus, underwent some degree of smell loss, even if they didn’t think they did,” Susan Travers, PhD, a co-author of the study and a professor of biosciences in Ohio State’s College of Dentistry, said in a statement, per Ohio State News. “This suggests the long-term impact on sensory function isn’t captured by self-reporting.”
Loss of smell or taste can affect people in a number of different ways. For one thing, according to Zhao, it could “affect their nutrition intake or food intake.” But it could also put you in more immediate danger—especially if you don’t realize these senses are underperforming. Zhao said his “one major concern” for people experiencing undetected smell and taste loss is that they might not be able to sense potentially life-threatening situations, such as a gas leak, a fire, or the presence of dangerous chemicals.
“There are some workers who test solvents, and we have patients who have actually been knocked unconscious working in a confined environment with solvents or with chemicals they weren’t aware of,” he explained to Pharmacy Times. “So people with good smell function can detect that and leave or ventilate, but some patients with smell loss cannot detect that environmental danger, and that could be a real risk for them.”
This problem is further exacerbated by the fact that while most of our other senses are routinely tested, like sight and hearing, “nobody gets a taste or smell exam,” Zhao warned, adding that hopefully raising awareness on this issue will push more clinics to get tools to test patients and let them “know the status of their sensory function.”
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