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Loss of smell or taste added to NHS coronavirus symptoms list

PUBLISHED: 12:36 18 May 2020 | UPDATED: 12:36 18 May 2020

Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said anyone suffering loss of taste or smell, or a noticeable change, should now self-isolate for seven days to reduce the risk of spreading the infection. Picture: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright/PA Wire

Deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam said anyone suffering loss of taste or smell, or a noticeable change, should now self-isolate for seven days to reduce the risk of spreading the infection. Picture: Andrew Parsons/10 Downing Street/Crown Copyright/PA Wire

A loss or changed sense of taste or smell are to be added to the NHS coronavirus symptoms list, weeks after experts first raised concerns that Covid-19 cases are being missed.

Anyone suffering loss of taste or smell, or a noticeable change, should now self-isolate for seven days to reduce the risk of spreading the infection, said England’s deputy chief medical officer Professor Jonathan Van-Tam.

If the symptomatic person lives with others, they should stay at home for seven days, while all other household members should stay home for 14 days even if they do not have symptoms.

The move means loss of smell or taste will now be listed alongside fever and cough as the main symptoms of Covid-19.

Prof Van-Tam told reporters it would mean 93% of cases where people have symptoms are now picked up, a rise from 91% previously.

It comes after a major study, published last week by Professor Tim Spector at King’s College London, found that people with a positive test result were three times more likely to report loss of smell and taste as a symptom than those who went on to test negative.

He heavily criticised the Government’s stance on Monday, saying infected people had been encouraged back to work due to a failure to track symptoms properly.

Prof Spector, head of the department of genetic epidemiology and leader of the Covid symptom study app at King’s, said 50,000 to 70,000 people in the UK with Covid-19 were currently not being told to self-isolate even though they had the virus.

He blamed Public Health England (PHE) and the wider strategy, saying an insistence that only fever and cough were the major symptoms was missing thousands of cases.

Until now, the NHS 111 coronavirus symptom checker has listed high temperature and cough as the symptoms of Covid-19.

Prof Van-Tam said on April 3 that the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (Nervtag) had looked at the issue and concluded loss of smell or taste should not be added to the symptom list.

But in the same month, ENT UK, the professional membership body representing ear, nose and throat surgery in the UK, published guidance to patients saying it believed loss of smell and loss of taste were symptoms of coronavirus and that it had shared these details with PHE.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) listed loss of smell and taste as “less common symptoms” several weeks ago and other countries, including the US, added the symptom.

On Monday, Prof Van-Tam said people should now watch out for a “loss of or change in your normal” sense of smell or taste.

He said it had been known for a while that people were reporting loss of smell and taste as symptoms but advisers had needed to look at this in detail.

Prof Van-Tam said it was unclear whether or not loss of sense of taste and smell was acquired prior to other Covid-19 symptoms.

Earlier, Prof Spector said there are even more symptoms – such as tiredness, stomach pain or diarrhoea - that could be included as possible coronavirus symptoms.

He said: “We list about 14 symptoms which we know are related to having a positive swab test.

“These are not being picked up by the NHS. This country is missing them all and not only underestimating cases, but also putting people at risk and continuing the epidemic.

“There’s no point telling people to be alert if they don’t know the symptoms.”

Prof Van-Tam said scientists had had to “work out very carefully” how valid loss of taste or smell were in counting cases and where in the course of an illness the symptoms might occur.

He said Prof Spector’s paper cited loss of smell and taste as being more frequent in people who test positive “but very much in the presence of other symptoms”.

He added: “The question for Nervtag has always been: at what point can we be sure that by adding anosmia (loss of smell) or adding anything else, frankly – there’s plenty of other things such as fatigue, diarrhoea loss of appetite – at what point would adding any of these definitely improve and help us to pick up cases?

“That work has now been completed. And that’s why we’ve got to the position we have now, not just about whether or not anosmia exists – it’s about what role it plays in identifying cases, and that’s taken time to work through those data.”

Speaking at a press conference in Downing Street on Friday, Health Secretary Matt Hancock said his loss of taste had not been permanent.

“For me personally, I did lose my sense of taste but it has come back though,” he said.


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