A woman holds a cup of coffee, breathing in the aroma.

April 2, 2020

A sudden loss of smell or taste can be one of the earliest signs of COVID-19.

“But losing your sense of smell doesn’t mean with certainty that you have coronavirus, so don’t be alarmed,” says Dr. Sreekrishna K. Donepudi, an otolaryngologist with Memorial Hermann Medical Group Sugar Land Multi-Specialty.

Dozens of viruses, including for the flu and common cold, also can reduce your sense of scents. “We know from previous experience that 40% of loss of smell and taste are due to viral infections,” Dr. Donepudi says. “Of those, 10% to 15% are due to coronavirus.”

Taste and aromas are linked. Your tongue has taste buds that alert you whether food is salty, bitter, sweet, sour or savory. But any subtlety of flavor comes from your nose.

“With swelling and inflammation from a viral infection, particles of air that carry smell can’t get to the top of the inner nose,” he says. “That’s where the olfactory nerve lives. Beyond ailments, age and injury can dull your perception of flavors and aromas.”

When the virus passes, often the ability to detect odors returns—but not always. “Sometimes, the virus attacks the nerve, causing permanent damage and a permanent loss of smell,” says Dr. Donepudi.

At this point, the link between your senses and COVID-19 is anecdotal. But the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery is collecting data, Dr. Donepudi says.

In the meantime, “a loss of smell is a little red flag that we take more seriously than we might have before the pandemic,” he says.

As many as 66% of Germans with the virus complained of a loss of smell, as did about 30% of patients in South Korea.

If you suffer the same, alert your doctor promptly, and for 14 days, stay alert for other symptoms of coronavirus.

Also continue or start measures to avoid spreading a communicative disease:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly and frequently
  • Avoid touching your face
  • Stay home to minimize contact with other people
  • Keep 6 to 8 feet away from others–including family and friends

“Even if a loss of smell is your only symptom, you may be contagious,” Dr. Donepudi says. “Try to spend as much time as possible in different rooms than the rest of your family.”

If you develop other symptoms such as fever, fatigue, dry coughs, chest pain or shortness of breath, it is best to get evaluated at an emergency room, where a coronavirus test may be recommended.

Be aware that losing your sense of smell not only affects your ability to taste food, but also to smell if something’s burning or if you’ve got a gas leak.

“Whatever you do, don’t panic or rush to self-diagnose,” Dr. Donepudi says. “Just be smart and be wary.”

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