Coronavirus patients, doctors seem to be temporarily losing their sense of taste and smell — here’s why

Abby Haglage
·6 min read
Healthcare workers wait for people to arrive at a COVID-19 mobile testing site in Florida. New reports from the UK show that both doctors and patients with exposure to the coronavirus are temporarily losing their sense of smell and taste. (Photo: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Healthcare workers wait for people to arrive at a COVID-19 mobile testing site in Florida. New reports from the UK show that both doctors and patients with exposure to the coronavirus are temporarily losing their sense of smell and taste. (Photo: Paul Hennessy/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As COVID-19 continues to spread, now topping 370,000 cases worldwide, mentions of a previously unknown symptom of COVID-19 — loss of smell — are gaining traction. “Haven’t been able to smell anything for the last 4 days,” tweeted Rudy Gobert, a player of the Utah Jazz who was the first NBA player to test positive for the coronavirus 11 days ago. “Anyone experiencing the same thing?

According to a paper published Friday by Claire Hopkins, PhD, a professor of rhinology at King’s College London, Gobert is far from alone. “There have been a rapidly growing number of reports of a significant increase in the number of patients presenting with anosmia [loss of smell] in the absence of other symptoms,” Hopkins writes in the paper, published by UK ENT (a medical society of ear nose and throat doctors). “This has been widely shared on medical discussion boards by surgeons from all regions...”

Hopkins adds that while early warnings did not mention anosmia as a symptom of the virus, many countries are now reporting it in their patients, including South Korea, China and Italy. In Germany, doctors are reporting than “2 in 3 confirmed cases” of COVID-19 present with anosmia.

Not everyone is ready to declare loss of smell and taste a symptom of COVID-19 at this point. At a press conference Monday morning, the World Health Organization said it had yet to verify the theory. “We've seen quite a few reports about people in the early stages of the disease [that] may lose the sense of smell, may lose the sense of taste," said Maria Van Kerkhove, PhD, part of the WHO's health emergencies program. "But this is something that we need to look into to really capture if this is one of the signs and symptoms of COVID-19."

Still, in an email to Yahoo Lifestyle, Hopkins says that the reports about the loss of smell as a symptom have not only been shared on medical boards but also “closed social media groups for doctors to share experiences of COVID-19.” On one, Hopkins says an Italian doctor shared that “he and many of his colleagues had lost their sense of smell while working in northern Italy dealing with COVID-19 patients.”

After seeing other reports of the symptoms, Hopkins decided to publish what she and others had found. “I saw so many patients last week who had not been picked up by our hospital screenings questions,” Hopkins tells Yahoo Lifestyle. Ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctors are now expressing concern that if more healthcare workers and patients are not made aware of these new symptoms, many more cases could go undetected.

In the spirit of staying safe, here’s what you need to know.

Those with loss of smell/taste could be asymptomatic carriers

While more research is needed to determine exactly how common it is to experience loss of smell and taste, Hopkins notes that most people with those symptoms had few others, meaning they could be unknowingly passing COVID-19 on. “There is potential that if any adult with anosmia but no other symptoms was asked to self isolate for seven days, in addition to the current symptom criteria used to trigger quarantine, we might be able to reduce the number of otherwise asymptomatic individuals who continue to act as vectors,” Hopkins writes in the paper. “It will also be an important trigger for healthcare personnel to employ full PPE [personal protective equipment]...”

Coronavirus Social Distancing Zones
Coronavirus Social Distancing Zones

Both symptoms are common, and often caused by inflammation

It may seem alarming to imagine losing the sense of smell and taste, but both symptoms occur frequently and are most often temporary. “Post-viral loss of smell is quite common — occurring with a common cold and affecting up to 300,000 patients a year in the UK,” Hopkins tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “There is a good chance of recovery with reports from Italy matching the experience of my patients and affected colleagues that recovery often starts within 2 weeks.”

Hopkins says the symptoms were surprising given that COVID-19 does not seem to produce “nasal blockage or runny nose,” but those aren’t necessarily required to hinder those senses. William Schaffner, PhD, an infectious disease specialist at Vanderbilt University, has one theory. “This [has to do with] an area back behind the nose where the virus lurks,” says Schaffner. “So I would think this has to do with some sort of local inflammatory response.”

Sense of smell and sense of taste are intertwined

Although Hopkins’ paper focuses primarily on the loss of sense of smell, previous research has shown that loss of taste is deeply connected to smell. Schaffner affirms that the two work in tandem. “We’ve been getting lots of reports of loss of taste. Most people don’t realize that their sense of taste is largely controlled by their sense of smell,” Schaffner tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “So if you lose your sense of smell, you also lose much of your sense of taste.”

The symptom probably isn’t new; doctors just may have missed it

For those with fears that the new symptoms signal a mutated virus, Schaffner says there’s another explanation. “This is more likely something that [had] not come to attention sufficiently to be reported,” Schaffner tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The average doctor — including infectious disease doctors — if we’re taking care of patients who have respiratory infections will not proactively ask about your sense of smell, it just doesn’t occur to ask that. Unless the patient volunteers it, we won’t know about it.”

If you experience loss of taste/smell and feel OK, stay home

Now that both anecdotal and medical reports have found the symptoms to be associated with COVID-19, Hopkins and Schaffner say that anyone experiencing those should self-isolate. “If you suddenly lose your sense of smell and taste you may be positive, that’s the message,” says Schaffner. “So stay away from others because you could be positive even if you don’t have other symptoms.”

For the latest news on the evolving coronavirus outbreak, follow along here. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.

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