Can the Coronavirus Cause Loss of Smell and Taste?
According to various global reports, COVID-19 patients are experiencing a notable loss of smell or taste.
Not only does the coronavirus typically cause fever, cough, and shortness of breath, it might also mess with people's senses. Amid the call for supplies and emphasis on social distancing, medical experts have recently been bringing attention to a possible connection between COVID-19 and loss of smell and taste.
On Saturday, The British Association of Otorhinolaryngology (ENT UK) released a statement: "There is already good evidence from South Korea, China, and Italy that significant numbers of patients with proven COVID-19 infection have developed anosmia/hyposmia." That's a loss of smell and partial loss of smell, respectively, if you don't know medical jargon.
"In Germany, it is reported that more than 2 in 3 confirmed cases have anosmia," continues to the statement. "In South Korea, where testing has been more widespread, 30 percent of patients testing positive have had anosmia as their major presenting symptom in otherwise mild cases." (Related: The Most Common Coronavirus Symptoms to Look Out for, According to Experts)
Interestingly, some people might be losing their sense of smell from the coronavirus but not experiencing other symptoms. "In addition, there have been a rapidly growing number of reports of a significant increase in the number of patients presenting with anosmia in the absence of other symptoms—this has been widely shared on medical discussion boards by surgeons from all regions managing a high incidence of cases," according to the same ENT UK statement.
Following this report, the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS) updated its online COVID-19 resource center with its own statement, reading, in part "anosmia, hyposmia, and dysgeusia [impaired taste] in the absence of other respiratory disease such as allergic rhinitis, acute rhinosinusitis, or chronic rhinosinusitis should alert physicians to the possibility of COVID-19 infection and warrant serious consideration for self-isolation and testing of these individuals."
So, what does the World Health Organization (WHO) have to say about the strange supposed symptoms? It has yet to take a definitive stance. During a media briefing on Monday, Maria Van Kerkhove, M.D., technical lead of the WHO Health Emergencies Program, said that the organization is looking into the loss of these sensations as potential signs of COVID-19. "We are reaching out to a number of countries and looking at the cases that have already been reported to see if this is a common feature," said Dr. Kerkhove. "We don't have the answer to that yet, although there's quite a bit of interest on this online."
She did remind everyone of what WHO has gathered about coronavirus symptoms thus far. "We have a good handle on what the major ones are and those are fever, this is dry cough, this is shortness of breath," she said. "And of course other features would be aches and pains, some people have a headache. Very few, between three and five percent, will have gastrointestinal symptoms. Very, very few will have a runny nose or sneezing." (Related: Can the Coronavirus Cause Diarrhea?)
Still, with mounting anecdotal evidence suggesting loss of smell and taste as symptoms of the coronavirus, the million-dollar question remains: Should people who experience loss of these sensations act as though they could have the coronavirus? "100 percent," says Michael Hall, M.D., a family medicine doctor in Miami, Florida. Self-quarantining is a worthwhile step that could make a difference when it comes to spreading the virus, says Dr. Hall. (Remember: coronavirus is primarily transmitted by person-to-person contact.)
In addition to the recent reports, Dr. Hall says he's also noticed these symptoms in his own practice. "Three of my patients that have COVID-19 have all lost their smell." He believes people who experience the symptoms should quarantine and call ahead before visiting a doctor—the same as if they were experiencing the three major symptoms of fever, cough, and shortness of breath. Plus, "take extra zinc, vitamins, fluids, the whole thing," he adds. (Related: What an ER Doc Wants You to Know About Going to a Hospital for Coronavirus RN)
From his experiences, Dr. Hall says that the extent to which people with coronavirus lose their sensations is more than just a symptom of your average virus.
"Normally with other viruses you'll have congestion [which can impair sensations], but you know, if you have the flu you can still taste your chicken noodle soup," he says. "This is weird. I spoke with someone who described her loss of taste while drinking lemon water. She could tell that there was a different sensation on her taste buds because of the acidity but she couldn't taste the lemon."
You can expect to see more details unfold about the prevalence of loss of smell and taste in COVID-19 patients in the near future. For now, it's something to consider as you're keeping tabs on your health.
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it's possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.