As if the fever, dry cough and shortness of breath associated with COVID-19 weren’t enough, some patients are grappling with the loss of their senses of smell and taste as well. UCLA Health consulted with Dr. Nina Shapiro to explain what causes these unusual symptoms. Dr. Shapiro is a professor of head and neck surgery at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.
Q. How common is it for someone to lose their sense of smell?
A. The general rate of anosmia, or smell blindness, in the healthy population is quite rare. As we age, loss of smell grows more common, affecting up to 20 percent of seniors. This tends to be a gradual process and may be accompanied by the slow blunting or alteration of one’s sense of taste, called dysgeusia.
Q. How many cases of sensory loss tied to COVID-19 have been reported?
A. In Korea and Germany, the rate is quite high. About 30-to-60 percent of COVID-19 patients have reported abrupt symptoms related to the loss of smell.
Q. What causes sensory loss in patients with COVID-19?
A. The sensory loss likely resembles changes we see in other respiratory viruses. Inflammation of the nose’s mucus membranes can lead to obstruction of hair-like cells in the airway that carry odors to the olfactory nerve, which controls smell. Rarely, viruses like influenza affect the olfactory nerve. This may hold true for COVID-19, though it's too early to tell.
Q. Should I alert my doctor if I experience sensory loss?
A. With so many overseas patients experiencing sensory loss as an early sign of COVID-19, it is critical that you report these symptoms to your primary care doctor. It may prompt your physician to pursue earlier testing or other measures.
Q. If I lose my sense of smell, do I need to isolate myself?
First of all, don’t panic. We’re at the tail end of cold/flu season and about to enter spring allergy season. If you have other COVID-19 symptoms in addition to a sudden loss of smell or taste, contact your doctor or public health department and self-quarantine until otherwise notified. To protect yourself and others from exposure, please do not go to your doctor’s office, urgent care or emergency room without a referral from your physician or public health department.