The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic continues to persist for millions of individuals, with approximately one in four people who fell ill during the early stages of the outbreak still experiencing a loss of smell or taste.

A recent study published in The Laryngoscope has revealed this alarming finding, emphasizing that the loss of these senses is more than just an interesting quirk or novelty; it carries significant medical implications.

Neil Bhattacharyya, a professor at Massachusetts Eye and Ear, asserted that the loss of smell or taste should not be underestimated. "Losing your sense of smell or taste isn't as benign as you may think," he stated in a news release.

He went on to explain that it could lead to reduced enjoyment of food and, in severe cases, even contribute to depression and weight loss. One of Bhattacharyya's patients, for instance, lost a staggering 50 pounds due to the loss of smell and taste.

"[It can] lead to decreased eating for pleasure and, in more extreme cases, it can lead to depression and weight loss," Bhattacharyya told Fortune Well.

Patients frequently describe their experience as food tasting like cardboard, highlighting the impact of this sensory impairment. Moreover, the consequences could be severe, particularly if an individual is unable to detect dangerous situations such as gas leaks or house fires. Additionally, careers that rely on taste and smell are significantly affected.

Last year, Jackson Kalb, a contestant on "Top Chef: Houston," revealed that he had lost his sense of taste shortly after contracting COVID-19, just days before the reality show competition. While Kalb reported a complete return of his taste eight months later, uncertainty still lingers.

The recent study examined data from the 2021 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), which encompassed survey responses from nearly 30,000 adults across the United States. The survey data revealed that in 2021, 35.8 million people, approximately 14% of the adult population in the U.S., had received a COVID-19 diagnosis. Among these individuals, 60.5% reported a loss of smell, and 58.2% reported a loss of taste. Notably, these symptoms were more prevalent in those with severe COVID-19 cases.

By the end of 2021, nearly 25%of those affected had not fully regained their senses of smell or taste, and over 3% had not recovered them at all. The likelihood of incomplete recovery or no recovery at all was higher among individuals with more severe cases.

Dr. Bhattacharyya emphasized the significance of the study, noting that it shed light on a group of people who have received less attention in this context. Additionally, the study highlighted the importance of vaccination and the use of Paxlovid, an antiviral medication, in preventing the loss of smell and taste. Both the vaccine and Paxlovid have been shown to reduce the severity of COVID-19 symptoms, according to the study authors.

Encouragingly, the loss of smell and taste associated with COVID-19 infections might become less prevalent moving forward. Researchers at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond have discovered that the newer variants of the coronavirus circulating have a considerably lower risk of causing smell and taste loss. Infections with the Omicron variant in 2022 and early 2023 resulted in smell loss rates as low as 6 percent compared to earlier variants in 2020.

Dr. Evan Reiter, the medical director of VCU Health's Smell and Taste Disorders Center and lead author of the study, suggested that increased immunity to the virus, whether through vaccination or prior infection, may contribute to this decline in smell loss. However, the exact cause of this decline requires further investigation.