Concerned You May Have COVID-19? Follow Your Nose, Study Suggests

CINCINNATI — The nose may be the key to quickly recognizing a COVID-19 infection, according to a new study out of the University of Cincinnati. Ear, nose, and throat specialist Ahmad Sedaghat says loss of smell is an early and easy way to distinguish coronavirus from other seasonal ailments like the flu or a cold.

“COVID-19 is not associated with the symptoms that are typically associated with a viral cold such as nasal blockage or mucus production,” says Dr. Sedaghat, an associate professor in the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine’s Department of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, in a release. “This distinction is also why it is fairly easy to distinguish COVID-19 from seasonal allergies.

“COVID-19 is associated with a fairly unique combination of nasal symptoms: a sudden loss of one’s sense of smell, also known as ‘anosmia,’ without nasal obstruction,” he adds. “The occurrence of sudden onset anosmia without nasal obstruction is highly predictive of COVID-19 and should trigger the individual to immediately self-quarantine with presumptive COVID-19.”

So, if you aren’t congested but notice your sense of smell waning a bit, it’s a good idea to self-quarantine yourself under the assumption that you’re developing COVID-19-related symptoms. Ideally, we would all have access to proper coronavirus tests, but that’s just not the case for millions of Americans.

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Dr. Sedaghat reviewed 19 prior studies that had investigated COVID-19’s sinus and nasal symptoms. One of those studies involved 55 patients experiencing a loss of smell but no congestion. Ultimately, 94% of those patients tested positive for coronavirus.

COVID-19 is produced within infected individual’s nasal lining and released into the mucus, according to Dr. Sedaghat.

“When someone sneezes, this mucus — which contains the virus — is aerosolized outwards. Similarly, if someone wipes their nose and then touches surfaces without washing their hands first, that could lead to spread of COVID-19,” he explains.

It appears that loss of smell can occur at anytime while the virus is present in one’s body, but when it occurs as the first symptom people should be quick to recognize it as a sign of coronavirus.

“A sudden loss of one’s sense of smell wouldn’t trigger most people to think they have COVID-19,” Dr. Sedaghat comments. “These individuals could continue business as usual and spread the disease as a carrier. The guidelines for when to formally test for COVID-19 remain fluid in the setting of limited tests. But if someone experiences anosmia without nasal obstruction, aside from quarantining, it would not be unreasonable to reach out to one’s primary care physician about getting tested.”

In conclusion, Dr. Sedaghat believes most people are becoming infected with the coronavirus through their nose; at least 90% of inhaled air enters the body through the nasal passage.

“Nasal virus production is at very high levels and tends to occur early in the disease process while patients are still asymptomatic or having very mild symptoms,” he concludes.

The study is published in Laryngoscope Investigative Otolaryngology.

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