What's anosmia? Loss of smell a hot topic in states hit hard by coronavirus

It may be one of the most unusual symptoms of coronavirus, and it's poorly understood.

Gael Cooper
CNET editor Gael Fashingbauer Cooper, a journalist and pop-culture junkie, is co-author of "Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops? The Lost Toys, Tastes and Trends of the '70s and '80s," as well as "The Totally Sweet '90s." She's been a journalist since 1989, working at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine, Twin Cities Sidewalk, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and NBC News Digital. She's Gen X in birthdate, word and deed. If Marathon candy bars ever come back, she'll be first in line.
Expertise Breaking news, entertainment, lifestyle, travel, food, shopping and deals, product reviews, money and finance, video games, pets, history, books, technology history, generational studies. Credentials
  • Co-author of two Gen X pop-culture encyclopedia for Penguin Books. Won "Headline Writer of the Year"​ award for 2017, 2014 and 2013 from the American Copy Editors Society. Won first place in headline writing from the 2013 Society for Features Journalism.
Gael Cooper
2 min read
A gray-haired woman nudges her nose into a large pink rose growing in a garden
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People in US states hit hardest by the coronavirus pandemic are searching for information on one of its more unusual symptoms -- anosmia, the loss of ones sense of smell. According to Google Trends, searches related to the symptom over the last week are significantly rising in states such as Texas and Arizona, which are among the places with the highest rates of new cases in the US.

Texas governor Greg Abbott announced Thursday that the state's reopening has been paused due to the recent increase in positive COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in the state. Abbott told CBS affiliate KFDA-TV in Amarillo that the state was "looking at greater restrictions."

Arizona governor Doug Ducey ended that state's stay-at-home order in mid-May, and now local coronavirus cases have spiked there. And searches for anosmia are also high in South Carolina, another state which reopened early and is now seeing a surge in positive tests.

Some are born with it

Coronavirus isn't the only cause of anosmia -- some people are born with a complete inability to detect smells. In April, Brooklyn filmmaker Jacob LaMendola spoke with CNET about how he didn't even realize he had it until fifth grade, and how his first smell of anything (fresh chocolate from a New York shop) overwhelmed him to the point of tears. And while it may seem like a less invasive symptom than some others, a study out of the UK's University of East Anglia published late last year found smell loss can disrupt almost every aspect of life, from the practical to the emotional. 

Nose cell damage

COVID-19 isn't the first coronavirus known to cause a loss of smell, according to the British Rhinological Society. A March study by Harvard scientists suggest that COVID-19 might damage a particular set of cells in the nose. At the time of the study, it was unclear whether or not COVID-19 can cause a permanent loss of smell. 

Loss can linger

No two cases of COVID-19 are the same, but in a roundup of people who've recovered, anosmia was mentioned frequently. Olivia, a student who tested positive for the virus in March, notes that the loss of smell was one of her longest-lingering symptoms, along with congestion.

On the CDC symptoms list

A new loss of taste or smell is now one of the 11 symptoms the US Centers for Disease Control lists as a sign someone could have the COVID-19 illness. Symptoms may appear two to 14 days after exposure to the virus, the CDC reports.

Good hygiene and social distancing remain the top two ways to prevent yourself from becoming sick.

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