Smell the Coffee

Wake Up and Smell the Virus

The pleasure of food is an important part of what drives us to eat and thus maintain our health. Much of that pleasure comes from food’s flavor, and our sense of smell is crucial for experiencing flavor. But it turns out that one of the early signs of infection with the new coronavirus is the loss of smell and taste. New research tells us it’s an important signal that someone might have the virus.

Joyless Eating

Grace Lawlor, a 25-year-old in Boston, felt fine otherwise when she noticed that she could no longer taste or smell anything. She told the Washington Post that hot sauce was indistinguishable from milk. Eating became joyless, she said:

There was no point. Even if I had a craving for something and I had that item right in front of me, there was no satisfying it because I couldn’t taste it.

An Important Signal

Lawlor’s doctor diagnosed a presumed COVID-19 infection and told her to isolate herself. Authors of a new study in the International Journal of Allergy and Rhinology report that a bit more than two thirds of patients with confirmed COVID-19 lost these senses. The lead author, Carol Yan, says:

Based on our study, if you have smell and taste loss, you are more than 10 times more likely to have COVID-19 infection than other causes of infection. The most common first sign of a COVID-19 infection remains fever, but fatigue and loss of smell and taste follow as other very common initial symptoms.

We know COVID-19 is an extremely contagious virus. This study supports the need to be aware of smell and taste loss as early signs of COVID-19.

Essential for Life

Taste and smell are indeed essential for life. Odors warn us of danger – a gas leak or unsafe food. But it goes beyond that. Prior research makes it clear that a permanent loss of taste and smell has profound effects on mental health and quality of life. It can have a role in metabolic health and obesity.

Fortunately, in COVID-19, the loss of taste and smell is generally transient. In the Yan study, most patients recovered taste and smell within a few weeks. In fact, it might be the only sign of a mild infection. So this is not a symptom to dismiss.

Click here and here for more on what it’s like to experience these symptoms. Click here for the study by Yan et al.

Smell the Coffee, photograph © Stefan Lins / flickr

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April 23, 2020