Could loss of smell or taste be a symptom of COVID-19?

Emily Becker
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From Harper's BAZAAR

With healthcare professionals working overtime across the world to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus, doctors in several countries are now noting that the sudden loss of taste and smell may be a previously under-reported symptom of the virus.

Known as anosmia and dysgeusia in medical circles, the loss of smell and an altered sense of taste, respectively, are common temporary medical conditions. Anosmia can be caused by the common cold and over 200 other viruses that cause upper respiratory tract infections, according to ENT UK, an organisation of ear, nose, and throat doctors in the UK.

While you should still watch out for those symptoms of COVID-19 already pinpointed by the CDC (including fever, coughing or trouble breathing), doctors are hopeful that this discovery will help identify more cases and lead more people to self-isolate who don’t have other symptoms of the virus.

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How common is the loss of smell and taste as a symptom of COVID-19?

As of March 28, there are 512,701 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (the official name for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus) worldwide and 11,662 cases in the UK, per the World Health Organisation. Doctors in countries with large outbreaks of the virus, including South Korea, China and Italy, have stated that a significant number of patients who have tested positive for the novel coronavirus reported a loss of smell as well, according to a statement from ENT UK.

In more than two out of three confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Germany, for example, patients experienced a loss of smell; in South Korea, 30 percent of all patients who tested positive reported a loss of smell as a symptom of the virus.

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What doctors find even more interesting is that there are a growing number of cases in which a loss of smell or taste is the only symptom experienced by a patient who tested positive for the novel coronavirus. According to ENT UK, healthcare workers in Iran, France, the U.S., and Northern Italy have seen an increase in anosmia cases. Unfortunately, though, in most cases, if a patient only has a loss of smell or taste, he or she is not qualified to be tested for the novel coronavirus.

It’s worth noting that most of this evidence is anecdotal at this stage, but there are enough reported cases that medical professionals are saying a loss of smell or taste should be considered a symptom of COVID-19. “We propose that these symptoms be added to the list of screening tools for possible COVID-19 infection,” reads a statement released by the American Academy of Otolaryngology — Head and Neck Surgery.

The organisation notes that if a patient does not have another respiratory infection, these symptoms “should alert physicians to the possibility of COVID-19 infection and warrant serious consideration for self-isolation and testing of these individuals.” In an effort to track the relationship between anosmia and the novel coronavirus, the organisation has also recently launched a reporting tool for clinicians to track cases of patients testing positive for COVID-19 experiencing loss of smell.

What are the other symptoms of the novel coronavirus that I should be watching out for?

According to CDC guidelines, fever, coughing and shortness and breath are all known symptoms of COVID-19. In some cases, these can be mild, but for those who are elderly or have a chronic or underlying medical condition, symptoms can be much more severe and result in hospitalisation.

It’s also important to remember that it may take symptoms up to 14 days to appear after you’ve been exposed to the virus, which is why it’s so important to self-quarantine if you’ve been in contact with someone who has tested positive for COVID-19 —even if you still feel healthy. Research has shown that you can have the novel coronavirus (and pass it to others) even if you aren’t displaying any symptoms.

What can I do to help stop the spread of the novel coronavirus?

Currently, there is no vaccine for the novel coronavirus, which means helping to stop the spread of COVID-19 really comes down to individuals. You can help by following the CDC’s guidelines, which include washing your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds, disinfecting surfaces you regularly touch, and avoiding touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. If you are feeling sick, you should definitely stay home to avoid infecting others.

Even if you feel healthy, practicing social distancing are important for giving our healthcare system the best shot at beating this outbreak. While you may have mild symptoms—or none at all—without testing, there’s no way to know for certain. So, for the time being, stay at home, get cozy on your couch and do your part to flatten the curve.

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