Losing Your Sense of Smell May Be an Early Symptom of COVID-19

  • Researchers say that losing one’s sense of smell can be a symptom of COVID-19.
  • Anyone who’s recently lost their sense of smell should keep an eye out for other symptoms such as fever or persistent cough.
  • If other COVID-19 symptoms are present, it’s best to seek medical help.
  • If the loss of smell is related to COVID-19, the sense will likely return in a few days or weeks.

It appears increasingly likely that losing one’s sense of smell is a symptom of COVID-19.

For weeks, those who’ve been diagnosed with the disease have reported losing their sense of smell.

Earlier this month, researchers from the University of California in San Diego released a study indicating that sensory loss, including the sense of smell, was strongly associated with COVID-19.

Dr. Carol H. Yan, an otolaryngologist at UC San Diego Health, said the research suggests that if you have smell and taste loss, you’re 10 times more likely to have COVID-19.

“This study supports the need to be aware of smell and taste loss as early signs of COVID-19,” Yan said in the study’ release.

According to doctors interviewed by Healthline, it’s important for patients and doctors alike to be aware of this connection, even if the data is preliminary.

“From what we’ve seen, as many as two-thirds of those with COVID-19 may experience a temporary loss or distortion of their smell, as well as taste,” Dr. Robert Quigley, a senior vice president and regional medical director of International SOS, told Healthline.

What if it isn’t COVID-19?

Anosmia, the term for losing one’s sense of smell, has been around for far longer than COVID-19.

“It’s worth noting that loss of smell is also a symptom we see in around 30 percent of the people who get the flu,” Dr. Nate Favini, medical lead of Forward, a preventive primary care practice, told Healthline. “It’s a common symptom for respiratory viruses and isn’t specific to COVID-19.”

Besides respiratory illnesses such as COVID-19 and influenza, other conditions like allergies, nasal polyps, and nerve issues could be possible culprits for someone losing their sense of smell.

“It’s variable as to what the recovery can be,” Dr. David Hiltzik, director of head and neck medicine at Staten Island University Hospital in New York, told Healthline.

“The time and the severity are both variable,” he said. “The sooner you get better, the better the prognosis. The longer you have this symptom, the less likely you are to recover.”

Hiltzik said that there are a number of options for treating anosmia, such as steroid medications, but there’s no definitive way to restore someone’s sense of smell.

Favini noted that if losing your sense of smell is the only symptom present, it’s unlikely to be COVID-19.

“If this is the only symptom you’re having, it’s important to know that there are things other than COVID-19 that could cause this, including medications and medical conditions,” he said. “If you’re experiencing loss of smell in isolation and it persists, don’t assume it’s COVID-19. Discuss this with your doctor.”

What if it’s COVID-19?

Because there appears to be a correlation between losing one’s sense of smell and COVID-19, experts say it’s important to be mindful of this symptom in the midst of the current pandemic.

Hiltzik said he and his colleagues have seen a significant uptick in patients reporting smelling loss during the early weeks of the pandemic.

“It’s a complaint that we get relatively infrequently. It happens occasionally,” he said. “But there have been more calls over the last 4 weeks than we’ve gotten in the past. It’s been way out of proportion to what we normally get. Subsequently, a lot of these patients do have other associated symptoms of COVID-19.”

The correlation appears to be strong enough that Hiltzik said his office is screening patients for loss of smell as well as the standard respiratory symptoms associated with COVID-19.

If it appears likely that a person could have COVID-19, they’re sent to get testing or to the hospital.

Quigley advises that anyone experiencing this symptom should quarantine themselves.

“If you’re a generally healthy person under the age of 60 and you begin to feel symptoms such as loss of smell, it’s best to self-isolate, stay hydrated, get rest, and take fever-reducing medicine like acetaminophen if needed,” he said.

“If along with loss of smell you have a fever temperature higher than 101°F lasting more than 2 days or a temperature higher than 103°F or are having extreme difficulty breathing, seek medical attention,” Quigley added.

Quigley noted that if loss of smell is a result of COVID-19, people are likely to see the sense return in a few days or weeks.

For those who experience this symptom, it’s worth consulting with a doctor whether there’s a pandemic going on or not.

But right now, when the pandemic is still raging, it’s important to be vigilant and keep an eye on symptoms.

“If someone has this set of symptoms, even if they don’t have fever, cough, or gastrointestinal symptoms, it’s still something they should be highly sensitive to, especially if they’re connected to the high-risk population or older people,” Hiltzik said.

“It’s a real warning sign that you may have COVID-19 or are a less-severe carrier,” he added. “If you have loss of smell and are with high-risk populations, take it seriously and consider getting tested.”

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