Scientists uncover why coronavirus patients lose their sense of smell

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — Smell loss is a cardinal symptom of COVID-19. For over a year, the link between the virus and losing one’s sense of smell has remained a mystery. 

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But now, scientists may have uncovered the reason behind this phenomenon.

According to Dr. Elisa Illing, director of rhinology at IU Health, the virus attacks and destroys the cells that line the upper portion of the nasal cavity. Doctors, Illing says, have seen this happen before with other rhinoviruses such as the flu. 

“This is not new. We know that some viruses do have the propensity to damage that skin around the smell nerves within the nose,” she told News 8. “It’s an area deep within the nose we call the olfactory epithelium.”

When this happens, the cells can’t get the oxygen flow they need which then leads a person to lose their sense of smell. 

For most people the loss is temporary because these cells can regenerate. For others the condition, known as anosmia, is permanent and smell never returns. Doctors aren’t yet sure why some are affected more than others. 

“There isn’t a group or gender or age that’s more susceptible,” Illing said. “We have seen that young people tend to recover faster than people that are older, but there is more research that needs to be done.”