A sudden loss of smell could be a sign of coronavirus, according to doctors

Korin Miller
Photo credit: Cavan Images - Getty Images

From Runner's World

  • A new statement from experts in the U.K. suggests that a loss of smell could be a sign of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus.
  • There have been a “rapidly growing number of reports” of a “significant increase” in people who have a loss of smell with no other symptoms.
  • This symptom can also be attributed to a cold or allergies. Check in with your doctor if it occurs, who may recommend self-isolation for 14 days.

You’ve probably memorised the top three symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus: fever, dry cough, and shortness of breath. Currently, those are the only symptoms listed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The World Health Organization, however, says people diagnosed with COVID-19 can experience a wide range of symptoms similar to the flu, including fatigue, sore throat, muscle pain, headaches, and more. But now, doctors believe there is a peculiar symptom to keep on your radar: lost sense of smell.

The British Rhinological Society and British Association of Otorhinolaryngology revealed in a joint statement that a loss or reduced sense of smell (medically known as anosmia) may be an early sign of COVID-19.

There have been a “rapidly growing number of reports” of a “significant increase” in people who have a loss of smell with no other symptoms.

“There is already good evidence from South Korea, China, and Italy that significant numbers of patients with proven COVID-19 infection have developed anosmia,” the statement reads. “In Germany it is reported that more than two in three confirmed cases have anosmia. In South Korea, where testing has been more widespread, 30% of patients testing positive have had anosmia as their major presenting symptom in otherwise mild cases.”

“Iran has reported a sudden increase in cases of isolated anosmia, and many colleagues from the U.S., France, and Northern Italy have the same experience,” they wrote, before noting that the U.K. has also seen this.

The American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery (AAO-HNS) also released a statement, acknowledging that anecdotal evidence is “rapidly accumulating” on this symptom. It also pointed to dysgeusia, or a distortion in the sense of taste. But “anosmia, in particular, has been seen in patients ultimately testing positive for the coronavirus with no other symptoms,” the statement says. “It could potentially be used as a screening tool to help identify otherwise asymptomatic patients, who could then be better instructed on self-isolation.”

Why might someone lose their sense of smell if they have COVID-19?

“Viruses are a common cause of changes to the sense of smell or taste that can occur with an upper respiratory infection,” says Rachel Kaye, M.D., assistant professor of laryngology-voice, airway, and swallowing disorders at Rutgers University. “Viral infection can result in both inflammation and swelling of the nasal cavity lining, leading to nasal congestion, which in turn causes a change in smell. Furthermore, there is also some evidence that viral infection can lead to neurologic damage in the smell receptors.”

Plus, “it may have something to do with the fact that the virus replicates in the nose and the throat,” adds Richard Watkins, M.D., infectious disease physician and a professor of medicine at the Northeast Ohio Medical University.

Essentially, when you contract the virus, it replicates (i.e. spreads) inside your body. If it’s replicating in your nose first, it may impact your sense of smell before it moves on to create the fever, cough, and shortness of breath.

But a loss of smell can also point to allergies or the common cold.

Again, loss of smell is not listed as an official symptom of COVID-19—yet. But it’s important to point out that COVID-19 is caused by a newly discovered coronavirus and doctors still have a lot of questions. “We’re learning more every day about it,” says infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, M.D., senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

The joint statement acknowledges that a loss of smell could be due to the common cold, and Dr. Watkins says it is also associated with allergies (important to note as we head into spring) and sinusitis, a common condition in which your sinuses become swollen and inflamed.

What should you do if you develop a loss of smell?

The AAO-HNS recommends isolating yourself at home, which most people are doing already anyway. Dr. Watkins agrees, recommending self-isolation for 14 days, the typical incubation period of coronavirus.

“If there is a known COVID-19 exposure, then the person in question may want to self-isolate until a definitive diagnosis is obtained,” Dr. Kaye agrees. “That being said, although the anecdotal evidence is increasing, there has not yet been any scientific studies currently published regarding this and so strict protocol for people experiencing these symptoms are lacking.”

Bottom line: If you have a history of seasonal allergies, your loss of smell may be due to just that—but check in with your doctor, just in case.

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