A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic

Are loss of smell, taste COVID-19 indicators? Scientific evidence not confirmed

Loss of taste, smell? Is this a sign of COVID-19?

There isn’t confirmed scientific evidence that loss of smell or taste is a COVID-19 indicator. But experts are gathering data to learn more.

As the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has spread around the globe, scientists in Britain may have discovered the best way of detecting if someone has COVID-19 – the loss of taste and smell.

There isn’t confirmed scientific evidence that loss of smell or taste is a clear indicator of COVID-19, but the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery is gathering anecdotal information through an online reporting tool to find out more.

Marshfield Clinic Health System otolaryngologist, Timothy Boyle, M.D., discussed this development and how it effects things going forward on COVID-19.

“One of the intake questions should be whether someone has a loss of sense of smell,” Boyle said. “It really should be on the front lines of questions in screenings.”

Other parts of the world seeing similar symptoms

Primary symptoms listed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are familiar at this point. These include fever, new cough and shortness of breath not associated with prior chronic condition or allergies.

But, as more cases come back with loss of smell and taste as a symptom, the more it’s being investigated. Boyle said, in Germany, 60% of the COVID-19 cases reported anosmia (decreased sense of smell).

In areas of the world that have had large numbers of COVID-19 cases like China, Italy, South Korea and Iran, it has been observed that significant numbers of patients who test positive have had a decreased sense of smell.

At the Health System, Boyle said information gathered and updated is being taken seriously.

“It is well known that common viruses (including known strains of coronavirus), that cause routine cold-like illnesses, can damage the sense of smell temporarily or permanently,” he said. “The reason we use nasal swabs to detect the novel coronavirus is that the lining of the nose and the back of the nose contain the highest levels of the virus. Therefore, it isn’t surprising to think that a loss of smell would potentially be caused by COVID-19.”

Convincing evidence

However, what is surprising is South Korea –an area in which more extensive testing has been done – found that 30% of their patients who tested positive for COVID-19 have had anosmia as a major symptom, despite otherwise having mild symptoms.

The most convincing evidence comes from King’s College in London, Boyle said. British scientists collected data from 1.5 million people using a symptom tracker app used to monitor the pandemic spread. Just like in Germany, they found that 60% of patients who eventually tested positive for COVID-19, complained that they had lost their sense of smell or taste. Those who did were three times more likely to test positive for COVID-19 when they also suffered other symptoms.

“Thus, the American Academy of Otolaryngology has made a recommendation to use loss of smell as a screening symptom for otherwise asymptomatic patients,” Boyle said. “This could allow early quarantine of these patients and slow the spread of the virus. It also could allow those of us in otolaryngology to more accurately predict when to use scarce supplies of maximal protective equipment.”

Do you think you have symptoms of COVID-19? Contact the Health System’s Nurse Line at 1-844-342-6276 before visiting your doctor’s office or urgent care.

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