Losing Your Sense of Smell May Be a Symptom of the Coronavirus

Woman smelling flowers.
Photo: PhotoAlto/Sigrid Olsson/Getty Images/PhotoAlto

By now, many of us are on high alert for the most commonly cited symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus: shortness of breath, coughing, and fever. But doctors are now looking into what they believe may be another telltale sign of infection: lost sense of smell.

According to the New York Times, British physicians have released an urgent warning calling on anyone experiencing loss of smell, also known as anosmia, to self-isolate for seven days. While the Times notes that the published data on anosmia among coronavirus patients is “limited,” the anecdotal evidence is compelling.

In South Korea, among a group of 2,000 patients who tested positive for the coronavirus, 30 percent who experienced mild cases said that anosmia was their main presenting symptom. Doctors in New Rochelle, a New York suburb that had one of the state’s earliest outbreaks, are reportedly seeing anosmia among their patients. In an area of Italy hit hardest by coronavirus, a doctor told the Times that “almost everybody who is hospitalized has this same story … 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.”

These anecdotes display why this particular symptom is so alarming: As noted by the American Academy of Otolaryngology, “Anosmia, in particular, has been seen in patients ultimately testing positive for the coronavirus with no other symptoms.” Therefore, doctors worry that people who are infected but not showing other symptoms might not know to self-isolate and risk spreading the virus.

“We really want to raise awareness that this is a sign of infection and that anyone who develops loss of sense of smell should self-isolate,” professor Claire Hopkins, president of the British Rhinological Society, told the Times. “It could contribute to slowing transmission and save lives.”

Losing Your Sense of Smell May Be a Symptom of Coronavirus