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COVID-19 Symptoms: People Report Loss of Smell and Taste

April 8, 2020
Medically reviewed by Susan Kerrigan, MD and Marianne Madsen

As the COVID-19 (the novel coronavirus) pandemic escalates, scientists are discovering more and more about the virus and how it affects people. One group of researchers at King’s College in London is enlisting the help of people infected with the illness to better understand how to treat it. 

 

Using a new app called “COVID Symptom Tracker,” people in the UK have been logging their COVID-19 symptoms and sharing the data with scientists. The research team looked at responses from 400,000 people who reported symptoms through the app. 53% felt fatigued or tired, 29% had a cough, 28% had shortness of breath, and 10% had a fever. 18% experienced a loss of sense of smell or taste.

It’s important to note that out of the 400,000 people, only 1,702 had been tested for COVID-19, and among those tested, only 579 were actually infected. But among the people who were diagnosed with the virus, 59% reported a loss of sense of smell or taste. Tim Spector, Professor of Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, thinks these new symptoms are a good indicator of being infected with COVID-19. 

 

“When combined with other symptoms, people with loss of smell and taste appear to be three times more likely to have contracted COVID-19 according to our data, and should therefore self-isolate for seven days to reduce the spread of the disease,” said Spector.

As of April 2, 2020, these new symptoms have surprisingly not been listed by any health organizations, such as the WHO or CDC, despite people reporting a loss of sense of smell or taste as early as the beginning of March. The WHO lists “fever, tiredness, and dry cough” as the main COVID-19 symptoms, with “shortness of breath, aches and pains, sore throat, and diarrhea, nausea, or runny nose” as uncommon symptoms of the virus, while the CDC only lists “fever, cough, and shortness of breath.”

 

So why haven’t any health agencies updated their COVID-19 symptoms? Well, experts say that there’s “not enough evidence” to add loss of sense of smell or taste to the key symptoms of the virus. ENT UK, the “professional membership body representing Ear, Nose and Throat surgery” in the United Kingdom, says these symptoms are not exclusive to COVID-19; however, they do think health agencies should add them to their websites as possible symptoms of the COVID-19.

The King’s College researchers advise people to be on their guard if they experience a loss of sense of smell or taste, but only if they also have other key COVID-19 symptoms–mainly cough and fever. 

 

All of us should keep these new symptoms in mind, but chances are that if you have a loss of sense of smell or taste but don’t have a cough or fever, you’ve just caught the common cold.

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