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Loss of Taste and Smell Could Be Signs of COVID-19 in Otherwise Asymptomatic People

Emerging data show that 30 percent of 2,000 patients who tested positive for novel coronavirus in South Korea experienced anosmia

The silhouette of a woman as she drinks red wine outside at sunset. JadrankaGojic7/Shutterstock

You don’t have a fever or a sore throat, nor are you experiencing fatigue, a dry cough or digestive issues. You feel generally healthy, but mysteriously you’ve lost your sense of smell or taste. Known as anosmia, this loss of the senses is emerging as a symptom in the otherwise asymptomatic carriers of COVID-19, the novel coronavirus.

Though data is limited, the New York Times reports that ear, nose, and throat doctors (ENTs) “are concerned enough to raise warnings,” with ENTs in the United Kingdom asking those with sudden anosmia to quarantine for at least seven days. According to the Times, “the British physicians cited reports from other countries indicating that significant numbers of coronavirus patients experienced anosmia, saying that in South Korea, where testing has been widespread, 30 percent of 2,000 patients who tested positive experienced anosmia as their major presenting symptom (these were mild cases).”

Doctors in Italy report similar findings:

“Almost everybody who is hospitalized has this same story,” said Dr. Marco Metra, chief of the cardiology department at the main hospital in Brescia, where 700 of 1,200 inpatients have the coronavirus. “You ask about the patient’s wife or husband. And the patient says, ‘My wife has just lost her smell and taste but otherwise she is well.’ So she is likely infected, and she is spreading it with a very mild form.”

Which, of course, is why people who feel otherwise healthy must stay vigilant. Losing taste and smell in a time when many seek comfort in food and wine is certainly a disappointment, but the real and potentially disastrous downside is that those experiencing anosmia could unwittingly be spreading the virus to people with more vulnerable immune systems. One Brooklyn woman told the Times that “she was not tested for the coronavirus during a recent illness, but her husband then became sick and had a positive test. Ms. Plattmier said she usually had a very sensitive nose, but now could barely smell anything — not the bleach she was using to clean the counters, which usually makes her feel nauseated, or the dog’s accident in the bathroom, which she cleaned up.”

Among those who report losing their sense of smell is basketball player Rudy Gobert, who plays for the Utah Jazz and drew criticism for his carelessness prior to his positive COVID-19 diagnosis. “...haven’t been able to smell anything for the last four days,” he tweeted Sunday. “Anyone experiencing the same thing?”

Gobert is not a doctor and most evidence that loss of smell and taste are symptoms remains anecdotal. However, a statement by the American Academy of Otolaryngology (the school of medicine that specializes in the ears, nose, and throat) asks that “these symptoms be added to the list of screening tools for possible COVID-19 infection,” and urges fellow physicians that patients presenting anosmia merit “serious consideration for self-isolation and testing.”