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One of the most well-known symptoms of COVID-19 is anosmia, or the loss of the sense of smell. Now, a new study says that more than one million Americans might have permanently lost the ability to smell due to the pandemic — suggesting that the symptom could be much more widespread than previously thought. 

The study, published Thursday in the journal JAMA Otolaryngology – Head & Neck Surgery, estimates that between 700,000 and 1.6 million people in the US have suffered from anosmia that lasted at least six months after being infected by COVID. That estimate includes people who have experienced parosmia, meaning a distorted sense of smell. Disconcertingly, the study’s authors add that the numbers might actually be an underestimate. 

“In the last couple of months, my colleagues and I noted a dramatic increase in the number of patients seeking medical attention for olfactory dysfunction,” Jay Piccirillo, an otolaryngologist at Washington University in St. Louis and the study’s lead author, told Gizmodo.

A messed up sense of smell isn’t as bad as dying — and it’s worth noting that 750,000 Americans are estimated to have lost their lives to the virus so far, with no end in sight — but it is a serious, life-changing symptom that demonstrates the sweeping risk of COVID even for survivors.

Piccirillo said that while most cases of anosmia related to COVID typically resolve within two weeks, cases that last beyond six months are “not good.” In fact, roughly five percent of patients with COVID-onset anosmia will permanently lose some or all of their sense of smell. 

The implications are bleak, especially when you consider how fundamental the sense of smell is to our everyday lives. Imagine not being able to properly taste your favorite food again, or not being able to smell something as simple as a flower. At worst, imagine not being able to smell a gas leak or a burning fire in your house. 

Luckily, there’s hope. Some organizations, like the Baylor College of Medicine, are coming up with what are essentially physical therapy treatments for your nose. There are also studies underway for experimental treatments for anosmia.

Regardless, it’s another clear sign that you should get vaccinated — and boosted — if you haven’t already. While it doesn’t guard you 100 percent against COVID, it does give you a much better chance of avoiding it — and its devastating symptoms. 

READ MORE: Over a Million Americans May Have Permanently Lost Their Sense of Smell to Covid-19 [Gizmodo]

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