There May Be A Genetic Reason Some People With COVID Lose Their Taste And Smell

by Christina Marfice
covid loss of smell

Loss of taste and smell has long been a perplexing symptom of COVID-19, but now, researchers think genetics might have something to do with it

Despite being double-vaccinated and boosted, I got COVID-19 around Christmastime. Luckily, the vaccine worked — my case was extremely mild, mostly limited to having some sniffles and a scratchy throat for a few days (get your vaccine and booster if you haven’t already!!!). But one of the most perplexing things about the illness was that it made me lose all sensitivity to spicy food — a symptom that lingered for weeks after I felt better and tested negative. Loss of taste and smell has been a telltale sign of COVID since the beginning of the pandemic, and scientists haven’t known why. But new research might contain clues about this confusing symptom.

A study published Monday in the journal Nature Genetics identifies a possible genetic risk factor for those who lose their sense of smell after becoming infected with COVID. This brings us a step closer to understanding why this effect happens — and helping scientists potentially identify treatments to help people regain their senses after they recover.

The loss of taste and smell is one of the symptoms that can linger for a long time in what doctors call “long haul” COVID cases — as many as 1.6 million people in the U.S. alone still experience differences to these senses six months after infection. So far, scientists haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly why it happens, or why the symptom lasts so long for some people. But the new study has pinpointed a genetic locus, or a fixed position of a gene on a chromosome, near the olfactory genes. Researchers say this locus increases the likelihood that a person will lose their sense of smell when infected with COVID by as much as 11 percent.

“It helps answer the question of ‘why me’ when it comes to taste and smell loss with COVID-19,” said Danielle Reed, a researcher who studies person-to-person differences in taste and smell loss due to COVID. “Some people have it and some do not. Inborn genetics may partially explain why.”

According to the study, as many as 68 percent of people infected with COVID-19 experience some degree of loss of their senses of taste or smell. This research is a step closer to answering why that happens — but also may be the first step toward helping treat that symptom.