A small study revealed that skipping the flu vaccine was associated with a higher risk for trouble with a sense of smell or taste.

Researchers say the results are preliminary, but since respiratory viruses are a common cause of a lost ability to smell, it is possible that the cold flu could be a contributing factor, according to a Reuters Health news report. Zara Patel, MD, and colleagues identified 36 patients with olfactory problems that started after upper respiratory infections.

The average duration of loss of smell was about 19 months but ranged from 3 to 48 months. Patel explains that respiratory viruses can damage olfactory nerves directly indirectly and directly by causing inflammation, with the effect not always being temporary. Patel states, “Patients who suffer from decreased or total loss of smell, called ‘hyposmia’ or ‘anosmia’ are deeply affected by this problem.”

The Reuters Health news report notes that people who can’t smell may lose important safety mechanisms, and 80% of taste is linked to smell, so a total loss of smell may ruin a person’s ability to enjoy food. Patel says, “This can (and often does) lead to deep depression and a drastic reduction in quality of life,” Patel said, “adding there is currently no established cure for the problem.”

Hundreds of different respiratory viruses may have an effect like this, but the influenza virus may be preventable with vaccines. Patel explains, “I saw this as a potential opportunity to (look for) any association between rate of vaccination and rate of (olfactory) loss, and see if there’s a way to eventually use this information.”

Overall, only 19% of the group with smell problems had been vaccinated against the flu, compared to 42% of the group who had no loss of smell. Patel says the study was small and more research needs to be done. As such, her new team will look at the same subject with more rigorously designed studies.

Patel asserts, “If people realize they are not able to smell or taste as well as they used to, they should seek care from an otolaryngologist as soon as possible. Because the longer the amount of time that passes before they are able to start treatment, the less chance they have for recovery.”

Source: Reuters Health