Study highlights need to identify healthcare staff who lose sense of taste or smell

Researchers from UCLH, UCL and the University of East Anglia have highlighted the need to identify, test and isolate healthcare workers who experience a new loss of taste or smell (anosmia).

The team, which included Prof Valerie Lund from the Royal National ENT and Eastman Dental Hospitals at UCLH, has found that healthcare workers who reported anosmia were almost five times more likely to have had a positive Covid-19 test.

The study, published in The Lancet Microbe, found a high prevalence of anosmia among healthcare workers at London’s Barts Health NHS Trust between mid-February and mid-April.

In questionnaires completed in the week of April 17-23, 168 out of 262 healthcare workers at Barts – nearly two-thirds – said they had lost their sense of taste or smell.

This suggests a large proportion of healthcare workers may have already been infected with Covid-19, with only mild symptoms.

When the questionnaires were completed, anosmia was not yet listed as an official symptom of Covid-19 – it was listed in May – and testing among NHS workers was still limited to those displaying symptoms of a new continuous cough and/or a high temperature (>37.8°C) as per national guidance.

At the time of the questionnaires, 73 (27.9 per cent) of the participants had been tested for Covid-19, with 56 of these (76.7 per cent) confirmed positive.

Senior author Prof Carl Philpott, from Norwich Medical School at the University of East Anglia, which led the research, said: “Smell loss as a symptom of Covid-19 is particularly important for healthcare professionals because they are at the frontline of pandemic – and at high risk of both contracting and spreading the virus. 

“There is a need for awareness and early recognition of anosmia as a means to identify, urgently test and isolate affected healthcare workers in order to prevent further spread of disease.”

In a follow-up survey in May, 47 per cent of respondents reported that their sense of smell and taste had completely recovered. A further 42 per cent said they had partially recovered their sense of smell and taste, but just over 7 per cent still suffered anosmia.

In July UCLH researchers flagged the importance of routinely screening healthcare staff for SARS-CoV-2 after finding a high proportion of frontline staff had the virus at the peak of the pandemic.