Loss of smell, taste, might signal pandemic
By Malcolm Ritter
The Associated Press
March 23, 2020
NEW YORK (AP) — A loss of smell or taste might be an early
sign of infection with the pandemic virus, say medical experts
who cite reports from several countries.
It might even serve as a useful screening tool, they say.
The idea of a virus infection reducing sense of smell is not
new. Respiratory viral infection is a common cause of loss of
smell, because inflammation can interfere with airflow and the
ability to detect odors. The sense of smell usually returns when
the infection resolves, but in a small percentage of cases,
smell loss can persist after other symptoms disappear. In some
cases, it is permanent.
Now, there’s "good evidence" from South Korea, China, and
Italy for loss or impairment of smell in infected people, says a
joint statement from the presidents of the British Rhinological
Society and of ENT UK, a British group that represents ear,
nose, and throat doctors. In South Korea, some 30% of people who
tested positive for the virus have cited loss of smell as their
major complaint in otherwise mild cases, they wrote.
So that might be useful as a way to spot infected people
without other symptoms — fever, coughing, and shortness of
breath — of the new coronavirus, they wrote.
A similar proposal was published on March 22, 2020, by the
American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. It
noted "rapidly accumulating" anecdotal evidence from around the
world that the pandemic virus can cause not only loss of smell
but also a diminished sense of taste. So the appearance of those
symptoms in people without another explanation should alert
doctors to the possibility of a COVID-19 infection, the group
Maria Van Kerkhove, an outbreak expert at the World Health
Organization, told reporters that the U.N. health agency is
looking into the question of whether the loss of smell or taste
are a defining feature of the disease.
Dr. Eric Holbrook, an expert on nasal and sinus disease at
the Massachusetts Eye and Ear hospital in Boston, said the
reports have been a hot topic among researchers and doctors. But
"we don’t have hard evidence right now" about how often smell
loss occurs in people infected with the pandemic virus, he said
in an interview.
Holbrook said the reports he has seen suggest the sense of
smell returns within a couple weeks, but how long it lasts has
yet to be firmly established.
He also said it’s difficult to assess reports of a loss of
taste because people with an impaired sense of smell often
report a loss of flavor, which is technically different from an
impairment in taste.
Holbrook said he is trying to set up a study of smell in
people being tested for the coronavirus at Boston-area
AP Medical Writer Maria Cheng in London contributed to this
The Associated Press Health and Science Department receives
support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of
Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.