What you need to know about the possible smell/taste link to COVID-19

As more anecdotes surface from physicians around the world about patients with COVID-19 losing their senses of smell and taste, we asked Steven Munger, Ph.D, director of the University of Florida Center for Smell and Taste, located within UF’s McKnight Brain Institute, what science can tell us about the potential link — and what to do if it happens to you.Steven Munger, Ph.D, director of the University of Florida Center for Smell and Taste, located within UF’s McKnight Brain Institute

So far, the stories are just stories.

“While I think these reports are real, there’s no data at this point to say that it’s unique to COVID-19,” Munger says. “You’ve probably experienced a lowered sense of taste and smell when you have a cold.” With only anecdotal evidence, it’s hard to tell if the symptoms experienced by COVID-19 patients are the same kind of temporary loss, possibly caused by congestion or inflammation, or something different. 

That said, don’t ignore a loss of smell or taste.

If you suddenly feel like you can’t smell or taste, “the prudent thing to do is self-isolate and immediately call your physician, or one of the various hotlines set up for reporting COVID-19,” Munger says. “Act like you’re infected until directed otherwise by your physician.”

Smell and taste scientists are on it.

While you normally don’t hear much about them, non-COVID-19 taste and smell deficiencies are fairly common: 13% of U.S. adults over 40 have a significant smell disorder. In the past few days, scientists and clinicians around the world who study smell and taste have banded together to fast-track gathering data on the phenomenon as related to COVID-19 and to develop tests patients can do at home.

Once we know more, it could be a useful indicator.

“It could be as simple as scratch-and-sniff tests sent to homes that people take themselves and report to their physician,” Munger says. “It might be a useful and safe way, along with other symptoms like body temperature and coughing, to get a better understanding of who should be tested for COVID-19.”