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April 22, 2020 — 4 p.m. EST
Anosmia and ageusia may sound like new fancy pasta shapes or the names of evil twins from a Disney movie, but if you Google them, your browser will unfortunately fill with articles about the novel coronavirus. Anosmia means “lack of smell” and ageusia means “lack of taste” — both of which have been anecdotally linked to COVID-19 for weeks. However, a recent study actually put some hard data behind that linkage, strongly associating loss of taste and smell with COVID-19 infection.
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The study, conducted at University of California San Diego Health in La Jolla, California drew from 1,480 patients with flu-like symptoms who underwent testing for COVID-19 from March 3 to March 29, 2020. The study included 59 of the 102 patients who tested positive and 203 of the 1,378 patients who tested negative for COVID-19. It was found that loss of smell was reported in 68% and loss of taste was reported in 71% of the patients who tested positive, compared to 16% and 17% of those who tested negative for COVID-19.
"Based on our study, if you have smell and taste loss, you are more than 10 times more likely to have COVID-19 infection than other causes of infection,” wrote Carol Yan, MD, an otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon at UC San Diego Health and the study’s principal author. It is important to remember that the most common signs of COVID-19 are still fever, cough, and, in more severe cases, shortness of breath and difficulty breathing. However, this study may suggest different clinical courses for those who experience anosmia and ageusia when compared to those experiencing other symptoms.
Interestingly, of the people who tested positive in this study, most did not require hospitalization and none required intubation. This is in contrast to a different study, published by Oxford Academic looking at hospitalized COVID-19 positive patients who reported half the rate of taste and smell loss. This suggests that having a loss of taste and smell as a symptom may mean you have a milder case of COVID-19 and will have a different clinical course than patients who experience other symptoms. More studies will need to be done to see if loss of taste and smell as symptoms may be able to predict the severity of the disease.
What the authors of this study do argue is that anosmia and ageusia should be considered when screening for COVID-19 symptoms. With a large number of asymptomatic individuals potentially spreading the virus to more vulnerable populations, this association with loss of taste and smell is an important screening mechanism for those who may not be having more severe symptoms.
Encouragingly, Dr. Yan reported that a majority of people in the study recovered their taste and smell rapidly, with 70% of those affected reporting improvement at the time of the survey. Most patients with loss of taste and smell may expect to recover these functions within weeks, paralleling the resolution of their other symptoms, but the rate of true recovery is currently uncertain and will need to be studied further over time.
If you are worried you are experiencing a lack of taste or smell, Dr. Oz has a test to help troubleshoot those senses. He recommends grabbing five household items: a peppermint candy or mint leaf, a piece of citrus, a flower (can come from your yard), a piece of fish (canned tuna works), and an item made out of leather. Dr. Oz says to sniff each one, and if you can’t smell four out of five of the items, you should talk to your doctor about a possible COVID-19 test or any additional symptoms you may be feeling.