- Some people exposed to the novel coronavirus have reported losing their sense of smell and taste.
- Anecdotal evidence has suggested that this may be a subtle symptom of COVID-19, although it's not entirely clear why. Most people are likely to regain their senses once they've recovered.
- If you do lose the ability to smell and taste, try experimenting with different odors and flavors to discover what you still respond to, or incorporate a variety of textures or spiciness to keep food interesting.
- Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.
As the novel coronavirus continues to spread a strange new symptom has stood out to experts — COVID-19 appears to cause some patients to lose their sense of smell and taste.
There's still a lot we don't know about how that works, according to Dr. Rachel Kaye, assistant professor in the department of otolaryngology at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School.
"We haven't fleshed out exactly why this happens, we need to study it a lot more and ensure that there's hard scientific evidence," she told Insider.
Kaye and other experts have theorized that the virus can cause inflammation and swelling in the nasal cavities, which could inhibit your ability to smell or taste. It may also damage sensory receptors or nerves, which could explain why some people with COVID-19 report having no sense of smell or taste at all.
It could be an early or subtle symptom of infection and may indicate you could spread the virus. If it happens to you, consult your doctor (remotely), and consider if you may have other symptoms or have been exposed. Once you've self-isolated, there are ways to cope and still enjoy some sensory experiences.
You may still be able to experience certain scents or flavors
Anecdotes suggest that loss of smell or taste tends to afflict people with less severe symptoms of COVID-19, although that hasn't been confirmed, Kaye said. It can still be unpleasant.
You may not lose all sensation. The effects vary widely from person to person and it's worth experimenting to see what you might still be able to enjoy. Kaye recommended trying scented oils or perfumes, and different flavor profiles like sweet, salty, bitter, or sour.
"Tinker with different tastes and spices to see what you can register," she said. "Most of the time, everything is knocked out, unfortunately. But if you can, start adding more of the things you do register to your meals or routine so you can still have those experiences."
And coffee drinkers, rejoice — one common flavor that tends to stick around is coffee, Kaye said, although it's not clear exactly why.
If you can't taste anything at all, other characteristics of food can still be enjoyable, most notably texture.
"Different textures can help you continue enjoy eating," Kaye said. She recommends foods with a bit of crunch — consider carrots, chips, or nuts. Or, try something with an "explosive" mouthfeel, such as a blackberry, that exudes juice, seeds, or other interesting elements when you bite into it.
Similarly, if you enjoy spicy food, that may provide some respite. However, this can vary person to person, so it may require some testing to see what works for you. Try sampling things like cayenne, habanero, or Thai food.
"Hot pepper can be on a case by case basis," Kaye said. "We haven't defined whether it's impacting sense of smell or taste independently."
Most people will likely regain their senses as they recover
Finally, it's important to remember that for most people, loss of smell and taste from COVID-19 (or any other respiratory illness) is likely to be a temporary condition. In rare cases, some people might permanently lose their sense of smell or taste, or only partially recover.
"Most of the time for other viruses, it does go away. You'd assume that if it's related to nasal congestion, after that resolves, this would resolve," Kaye said. "There's no reason not to believe it works the same way as other viruses and conditions"
Over time, as more evidence of this symptom accumulates, medical experts will also begin to better understand how exactly it works, and eventually offer more insight into what might help.
"This is all happening in real time," Kaye said. "We're trying to mobilize to ensure scientifically that there is well-designed evidence that this is occurring. Then the next question is how that happens."
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