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Why coronavirus can make you lose your senses of taste and smell

INSIDER logoINSIDER 3/20/2020 Kelly Burch
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  • Some COVID-19 patients have reported losing their senses of taste and smell.
  • Similar symptoms were reported with the SARS outbreak in 2003, and changes in taste and smell are known to occur with other upper respiratory infections like the common cold and flu.
  • While scientists have yet to study these symptoms with the coronavirus, doctors believe any loss in taste or smell is temporary, and should return once other symptoms resolve.

Patients with COVID-19, such as UK Health Minister Nadine Dorries and a man in New Jersey, have reported losing their senses of taste and smell.

Doctors say this is a relatively common side effect of upper respiratory infections like the coronavirus. Although the loss of smell and taste can feel odd, doctors believe it is temporary and not cause for major concern. Here's what you need to know.

Losing taste and smell can occur with upper respiratory infections

The new coronavirus isn't the only infection that causes a loss of taste and smell.

For example, similar symptoms were reported during the SARS outbreak in 2003, and changes in taste or smell are also common for viral illnesses like the common cold or flu.

"This annoying and temporary symptom is likely due to inflammation of the nasal passages and associated infection of the nasal nerve cells responsible for smell," says Robert L. Quigley, MD, senior vice president and medical director for International SOS.

So what's likely going on here is more a loss of smell than taste. After all, taste and smell are closely intertwined. In 95% of cases, the sensation of being unable to taste is rooted in olfactory issues, or those having to do with the sense of smell.

"This is because they confuse the contribution of taste and olfaction to a food's flavor. The taste system is usually not impacted by viral upper-respiratory infections," says John Glendinning, PhD, professor of Biological Sciences at Barnard College of Columbia University.

It's unclear whether people with COVID-19 are actually losing their sense of taste temporarily, or whether it's being impacted by the loss of their sense of smell. Scientists have yet to study these symptoms of COVID-19.

You sense of taste and smell should return, but doctors are eager to learn more

In most cases, your sense of smell and taste will return after the other symptoms of COVID-19 resolve, which Quigley says could take days or weeks.

"The data is very preliminary and so it is difficult to predict," Quigley says.

Doctors are keen to learn more about why patients with COVID-19 are experiencing loss of taste and smell. The virus is thought to attack cells in the lungs and throat specifically, says Glendinning.

However, the reports of loss of taste and smell indicate that the virus may be attacking cells in additional areas, including the nose, he says.

"We still have much to learn about this 'novel' virus," Quigley says.

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