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UEA scientists discover how COVID-19 smell loss differs from cold or flu

PUBLISHED: 06:00 19 August 2020 | UPDATED: 12:10 19 August 2020

UEA scientists believe their findings over smell loss in COVID-19 patients could lead to quicker tests. Pic: Ben Birchall / PA.

UEA scientists believe their findings over smell loss in COVID-19 patients could lead to quicker tests. Pic: Ben Birchall / PA.

PA Wire/PA Images

Loss of smell associated with infection with COVID-19 is “much more profound” compared to a bad cold or flu, scientists from the University of East Anglia have found.

Professor Carl Philpott. Picture: UEAProfessor Carl Philpott. Picture: UEA

And they say their findings could help to develop smell and taste tests as an quick, alternative way to check if people have the virus.

The main differences which the team, led by Prof Carl Philpott, from UEA’s Norwich Medical School, found were that, although COVID-19 patients also lose their sense of smell, they can breathe freely, do not tend to have a runny or blocked nose, and they cannot detect bitter or sweet tastes.

The findings, yet to be peer reviewed, lend weight to the theory that COVID-19 infects the brain and central nervous system.

The study also involved the Norfolk Smell and Taste Clinic at the James Paget University Hospital in Gorleston, along with universities in Belgium, Italy, Greece and Turkey.

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The research team hopes the work could help develop smell and taste tests for fast COVID-19 screening – in primary care and emergency departments.

Prof Philpott said: “The loss of smell and taste is a prominent symptom of COVID-19, however it is also a common symptom of having a bad cold.

“We wanted to find out exactly what differentiates COVID-19 smell loss with the kind of smell loss you might have with a cold and blocked-up nose.”

The research team carried out smell and taste tests on 10 COVID-19 patients, 10 people with bad colds and a control group of 10 healthy people – all matched for age and sex.

Prof Philpott said: “We found that smell loss was much more profound in the COVID-19 patents. They were less able to identify smells, and they were not able to identify bitter or sweet tastes. In fact it was this loss of true taste which seemed to be present in the COVID-19 patients compared to those with a cold.

“This is very exciting because it means that smell and taste tests could be used to discriminate between COVID-19 patients and people with a regular cold or flu.

“Although such tests could not replace formal diagnostic tools such as throat swabs, they could provide an alternative when conventional tests are not available or when rapid screening is needed - particularly at the level of primary care, in emergency departments or at airports.”


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