VCU survey says one-third of patients experience loss of smell, taste

Updated: May. 20, 2020 at 11:38 PM EDT
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RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - The results from a survey by VCU Health of both COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients, 37.7 percent of respondents reported changes in smell or taste as the first or only symptom of their condition.

The ongoing study was lead by Otolaryngologist Dr. Daniel Coelho who says that according to preliminary reports out of Asia around March there were high rates of loss of smell in patients.

“It was mostly just anecdotal evidence and then as the pandemic kind of spread across Europe from Asia, more preliminary studies started coming out,” Coelho said. “We wanted to get ahead of the curve here in the United States and kind of get an idea of how these changes in smell and taste were occurring and what’s interesting is that the preliminary data that we’ve learned about COVID-19 and the loss of smell and taste has exclusively been in those patients who have tested positive.”

Coelho says the loss of smell and taste has only been recognized as a major symptom of novel coronavirus by the CDC and World Health Organization since mid-April. He adds that patients who experience these symptoms may not get the chance to be properly diagnosed when they show up due to limited testing and that they are also less likely to go to a doctor when they experience loss of smell or taste before many of the other novel coronavirus symptoms.

“There’s the classic things like sore throat shortness of breath and fever and also muscle aches,” Coelho said. "A significant proportion of patients who have COVID or ultimately go on to test positive for COVID, present with either just smell and taste loss or smell and taste loss as their first symptom.

For this reason, Coelho says the VCU study looked at all patients with smell and taste loss, not just those who tested positive with the presumption that because the loss of taste and smell is relatively rare that during the pandemic the majority of patients who experience this symptom likely have contracted smell and taste.

According to the preliminary results of the study of the 220 people who have participated or 42.3 percent were COVID-19-positive by diagnosis by a healthcare practitioner while the other or 57.7 percent had not been diagnosed.

The study also found that subjects with symptoms like difficulty breathing, cough, fever, muscle aches, and headaches were statistically more likely to be tested and than those without, while those who only showed loss of taste or smell as a symptom.

37.7 percent noticed changes in smell or taste as their only or first symptom, with 65.5 percent reporting both smell and taste loss simultaneously.

“The onset is very sudden and it can happen days to weeks before any other symptoms occur,” Coelho said.

Coelho says that patients who recover from the illness may regain their sense of smell and taste, but it could be the last thing to recover in what’s called post-viral smell loss which he says a common phenomenon of upper respiratory illness.

“This pandemic affords us a unique opportunity to study to really study post-viral smell loss because the incidence is so high and in gaining greater insight into COVID we’re going to gain greater insight into COVID, we’re going to gain greater insight into not only diagnosis but the treatment of all patients who experience post-infection smell or taste loss,” Coelho said. “Don’t dismiss it as something that may be unrelated to COVID-19 anybody who has smell or taste loss should be considered COVID-19 positive until they test negative,”

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