Smell that? If not, you should probably call your doctor

May 15, 2020

If you aren't feeling very well in these times, you may wonder, "Do I have it?" If you can't smell or taste that pepperoni pizza you just picked up, you probably need to call your health care provider.


There's been a lot of anecdotal evidence that people infected with COVID-19 lose their sense of smell or taste, but it didn't really matter because there were scientific tests to determine if someone had the virus. Of course, that test might take days to come back with a result.

A research team from the University at Buffalo's Jacobs School of Medicine said that loss of taste or smell is a quick screening test to see who should be given the more elaborate tests -- and it could be put to work immediately.

The team studied questions on nearly 1,000 healthcare workers, looking at 10 symptoms. When actually tested, around a quarter tested positive for the virus. UB Emergency Medicine professor Dr. Brian Clemency, the lead investigator, said symptoms can prioritize testing.

"In our study, fever and loss of taste and smell were present in 89% of all the positives, 7% did not," he said. "And so, maybe this gives us an idea about who should be tested first. It's certainly is not enough to give an all-clear, but it may help us prioritize patients."

Clemency said it's important to find those who are infected and out in public.

Dr. Brian Clemency is leading the investigative study.
Credit University at Buffalo

"There's a segment of the population, in fact, who has COVID and doesn't even realize they are sick at all," he said. "We had someone in the hospital who I had to call back because their tests results were positive. I called this person up. I said, 'I just wanted to let you know, see how you are doing.' Said, 'Oh I feel fine.' I said, 'Okay, well I'm glad you feel fine, but your test results were positive from a couple of days ago.' And she got very concerned. I said, 'No, no. You've survived it. You're okay.'"

Clemency said the research team had a test of the importance of taste and smell screening when one of the researchers came down with COVID, starting with a loss of taste and smell. He said there's another healthcare facility also running this study and if the results agree there, that could be a "proof of concept," which could allow immediate use of this quick screening on a wide basis.

This could be particularly useful if there is a shortage of tests and doctors have to choose who can be tested.

"That's the exciting part of it. Right? This is something that can give clinicians a very quick and rapid way to evaluate a patient's chance of having COVID," Clemency said. "It's not definitive, but it's one of the first best steps we have on terms of risk stratifying them."