COVID-19 typically produces a range of flu-like symptoms, including a cough and fatigue, but it can also cause the loss of taste and smell. Taste and smell can return or get better within 4 weeks of the virus clearing the body, but it may sometimes take months for them to improve.
A loss of taste and smell is a common early symptom of COVID-19. Therefore, anyone who notices changes in these senses should start self-isolating and get a COVID-19 test.
Changes might include:
- taste and smell being less sensitive than normal
- no sense of smell or taste
- foods tasting strange
- odors smelling unusual
When a person contracts SARS-CoV-2 and develops COVID-19, the loss of taste and smell could be their only symptom.
This article discusses the loss of taste and smell as a symptom of COVID-19, including how to cope and when to seek medical help.
A 2020 meta-analysis observed that 53% of people who contracted COVID-19 had problems with taste and smell. A loss of taste or smell, or a reduction in these senses, may present early and could be an initial symptom of COVID-19. The researchers note that if more people knew this, it could encourage earlier diagnosis and treatment.
According to one 2020 study, a sudden, severe loss of taste and smell in the absence of an allergy or other chronic nasal condition could be an early symptom of COVID-19.
However, if someone is experiencing any sort of unexpected dysfunction in taste and smell, even if it is mild, they should self-isolate and get a test for COVID-19.
This loss of taste and smell may occur in people who have no other symptoms of COVID-19.
To test for a loss of taste at home, a person should try foods with strong seasoning and check whether they can detect any differences between the flavors.
A person can test their sense of smell by choosing two items with strong and contrasting aromas, such as coffee granules and an orange, and smelling them individually to see whether they can detect any differences.
AbScent, a United Kingdom charity for people with smell or taste problems, provide a useful checklist that a person can use to assess and track their smell loss at home. If anyone wants to use the checklist to monitor a loss of taste, they can apply the questions to taste instead.
Doctors use different tests to diagnose a loss of taste and smell. To diagnose a loss of taste, they may conduct a “sip, spit, and rinse” test. To confirm a loss of smell, they may use a booklet containing tiny beads that produce different smells when someone scratches them.
However, due to COVID-19 restrictions, a person may not be able to undergo one of these tests in person at a doctor’s surgery. If a person has recently lost their sense of taste or smell and wants medical advice, they should call their doctor and speak with them over the phone.
Losing taste and smell suddenly could be an early symptom of COVID-19, so a person who experiences this should start self-isolating and get a COVID-19 test.
In most cases, the loss of smell and taste due to COVID-19 is temporary.
The researchers behind a multicenter study found that at 2 months, 75–80% of people had regained their taste and smell, with 95% having regained these senses at 6 months. They further noted that people who lost their taste and smell also experienced milder COVID-19 symptoms.
In rarer cases, people may require ongoing treatment and monitoring of their taste and smell.
Taste and smell are an important part of everyday life.
Losing taste and smell is often very unsettling, as these senses have a major influence on food preferences. When a person can no longer taste or smell, they may experience changes in body weight due to no longer eating the same foods they used to enjoy.
If a person has lost their taste and smell due to COVID-19, they should start noticing significant improvements in 4 weeks, though a full recovery may take 6 months or more. Focusing on the symptoms as temporary is a good strategy when feeling overwhelmed about not tasting or smelling anything.
When a person can no longer taste or smell their food properly, they can take steps to make meals more exciting. These include:
- choosing meals with a variety of colors and textures
- using aromatic herbs and spices for stronger flavors
- adding cheese, bacon bits, olive oil, or toasted nuts
- avoiding meals that combine many ingredients, such as casseroles, as these recipes may dull the flavor of each individual food
Some people may benefit from smell training to help their sense of smell return sooner. The training involves smelling four scents for about 20 seconds each per day. Concentrating on each smell could help with recovery. A person could apply this training to taste by choosing different flavors of foods.
People struggling with a loss of taste and smell may also benefit from joining online support groups and forums.
It remains unclear why COVID-19 can affect taste and smell so much.
Researchers also note that the expression of the human cell receptors to which SARS-CoV-2 binds is higher in the nasal cavity and cells in the olfactory tissue.
The loss of smell and taste could be an early symptom of COVID-19 and may be the only symptom a person experiences.
Other symptoms to look out for include:
People with these symptoms should contact their healthcare provider online or over the phone. They should also self-isolate and take a COVID-19 test.
If someone has severe symptoms — for example, they are struggling to breathe — they should seek emergency medical care.
The loss of taste and smell can be an early sign of COVID-19. People could experience a partial or full loss of these senses. The loss of the senses of taste and smell can sometimes be the only symptom that COVID-19 causes.
The symptoms are usually temporary, and taste and smell should significantly improve or return within 4 weeks. However, in some cases, this may take up to 6 months.
If a person does experience a sudden and unexpected loss of taste and smell, they should self-isolate and take a COVID-19 test.