How loss of smell, taste could be coronavirus clue

Published: Mar. 30, 2020 at 2:28 PM EDT
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Could one of the earliest symptoms of the coronavirus be spotted when you eat? Researchers in the United Kingdom found many patients who later tested positive for COVID-19 had a sudden loss of smell and taste. Our Cat Viglienzoni talked with an expert to find out why that might happen.

"It appears that one of the early symptoms before you even feel sick is lack of a sense of smell," said Vermont Health Commissioner Dr. Mark Levine at a press briefing last week.

And it's not just coronavirus. Dr. Kahren Aydinyan with Northwestern Medical Center Ear, Nose & Throat, says the flu and common cold can also lead to those symptoms. "That has been widely known," he said.

While temporary loss of smell and taste isn't unique to COVID-19, it may help people decide whether to self-isolate even if they aren't feeling any other symptoms. "I think it gives us another tool to say, 'Hey, maybe there is something going on here,'" Aydinyan said.

He said the reason isn't as many would expect -- blocked nasal passages. COVID-19 tends to be more concentrated in your nasal passages when it attacks your body. Those get inflamed and that decreases airflow to the nerves that control your sense of smell -- that's one theory. The other is that the virus affects the nerve fibers in your nose, which then undercut your sense of smell. Smell and taste are linked senses, which is why patients notice meals aren't as enjoyable.

"Everything they eat tastes like cardboard for example," Aydinyan said.

He says national researchers are trying to confirm for sure that there is a link between the virus and the loss of smell, but it will take time. "A lot of the evidence is anecdotal. We just don't know the facts yet. It's still a little early but I think the more precautions we take, the better," Aydinyan said.

We asked a couple coronavirus patients. One told us they had experienced that symptom, another said they hadn't.

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