Millions of people worldwide may have long-term smell or taste problems due to Covid-19, according to a new study.
One in every 20 people who catch Covid have long-term smell or taste problems as a result, with women more likely to be affected, research published in the BMJ indicates.
This could mean that millions of people around the world may have suffered smell and taste issues for at least six months following a Covid infection.
Loss or change of sense of smell or taste can suffer “severe distress”, academics said as they urged health systems to be prepared to support people who often feel “isolated” when dismissed by clinicians.
They said daily activities such as smelling coffee and testing the flavour of food can become “disgusting and emotionally distressing”.
The study comes as the NHS announced plans to improve long Covid services for people suffering ongoing illness after infection.
Under new guidelines, patients with suspected long Covid in England will have an initial assessment within six weeks.
Meanwhile, the new study reviewed data from 18 studies involving 3,699 patients.
Based on the data, the team of international researchers, including some from the UK, used modelling to estimate how many people go on to suffer from altered taste or smell for at least six months after a Covid-19 infection.
They concluded that an estimated 5.6% of Covid patients suffer smell dysfunction for at least six months and 4.4% have an altered taste
In July there had been some 550 million infections worldwide, which means 15 million may have had lasting smell problems and 12 million patients had taste problems for at least six months, the authors estimated.
Women were less likely to recover their sense of smell and taste, they found.
And patients who suffered the most at the initial infection were also more likely to have lasting effects.
In a linked editorial, a team of Italian academics wrote: “About 5% of people report smell and taste dysfunction six months after Covid-19, and given that an estimated 550 million cases of Covid-19 have been reported worldwide as of July 2022, large numbers of patients will be seeking care for these disabling morbidities.
“Health systems should therefore be ready to provide support to these patients who often report feeling isolated when their symptoms are overlooked by clinicians.”
They said people “only realise the importance of smell when it is lost” and they can be “severely distressed” when they lose these senses.
“Loss of smell and taste adversely affects quality of life by depriving those affected of several everyday pleasures and social bonds,” the team, led by Paolo Boscolo-Rizzo from the University of Trieste, wrote.
“People can also experience anorexia, food aversions, malnutrition, anxiety, and depression,” they added.
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NHS England has set out its ‘Long Covid Action Plan’ for thousands of people with ongoing symptoms.
Under the plans, people will be able to access services closer to home and be given an initial assessment within six weeks at a specialist clinic.
It is hoped that the £90 million service will reduce the need for a patient to return to their GP for multiple different symptoms.
The money will be used to fund 90 specialist long Covid clinics, 14 hubs for children and young people and investment in training and guidance to support GP teams in managing the condition.