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Infectious Diseases

Updated 24 March 2020

Hidden coronavirus carriers with mild cases - these symptoms could give clues to an infection

It’s common to lose your sense of smell and taste when you are struck with flu, and in the case of coronavirus, these symptoms may hold peculiar clues into the virus.

When we are down with the seasonal flu, we may notice that our sense of taste and smell are gone.

Also with the new coronavirus, a sudden, profound loss of smell appears to be a key indicator of the virus, even when there are no other symptoms present.

Anosmia is a term we use to describe a total or partial loss of smell, which can be caused by a blocked nose or something more serious such as a head injury.

According to evidence compiled by leading rhinologists in the UK, anyone experiencing a sudden loss of smell may be a hidden, asymptomatic carrier of the Covid-19 virus. Because they don’t meet the vital criteria to be tested (two or more symptoms and a travel history), they are unlikely to get a definite positive and may spread the virus unknowingly.

And more investigation is indicating that a profound loss of smell is indeed a key sign of the virus:

"In South Korea, where testing has been more widespread, 30% of patients testing positive have had anosmia as their major presenting symptom in otherwise mild cases," the president of the British Rhinological Society, Professor, Clare Hopkins, and the president of the British Association of Otorhinolaryngology, professor Nirmal Kumar, said in a joint statement.

One of the hidden signs

Recent research reported by Health24 has shown that mild or asymptomatic people who were unaware that they carried the Covid-19 virus contributed to most of the spread.

Because it’s virtually impossible to get tested without showing clear symptoms (coughing, shortness of breath, fever) and a recent travel history to or from a high-risk area, people wouldn't be able to know whether they are carrying the disease or not.

But now it has become clear that the loss of smell can be a clear indicator you may be carrying the virus, even if you are not sick.

Why the lost sense of smell?

Medical experts are still unsure how the sudden, profound loss of smell is linked to the Covid-19 virus. But while evidence is unclear, it’s significant enough for medical experts to call upon people to isolate themselves when they experience this symptom.

“We really want to raise awareness that this is a sign of infection and that anyone who develops loss of sense of smell should self-isolate,” Prof Claire Hopkins, president of the British Rhinological Society, wrote in an email to the New York Times. “It could contribute to slowing transmission and save lives.”

Self-isolation 101

The World Health Organization and several authorities around the world are asking people to refrain from socialising and going out at this stage, as it is the mild, undocumented cases that could cause serious illness in other, more vulnerable members of society.

  • Try to make use of online delivery services to get groceries and medicine delivered to your house if possible.
  • When going out to shops, be sensible – sanitise your hands and refrain from touching your nose and face.
  • Wash your hands and wipe down surfaces such as door and cupboard handles as soon as you come back home.
  • Exercise in smaller groups of two or three while maintaining a distance of at least 2m from each other.
  • Even if you don’t fit the criteria for testing, stay home and isolate yourself from other people if you suspect that you might have been in contact with someone carrying the virus.

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