Loss of smell is a relatively specific coronavirus symptom, so researchers say waking up and smelling the coffee is a good place to check in on your health.

By Mike Pomranz
December 17, 2020
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Millions of Americans start their day with coffee. And in 2020, for many Americans, that same coffee—and a newfound inability to smell it—was their start to realizing they had COVID-19. Now, in the battle against the pandemic, even medical professionals are suggesting people give their coffee a big whiff to double-check if they have this common symptom—a sign they may need further testing.

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The CDC lists 11 symptoms for COVID-19 on its website, but while most of them are associated with a wide array of common illness, one is more COVID-19 specific: a new loss of taste of smell—which many patients describe as a complete loss of these senses. (A fellow writer told me he could shove a bottle of gin under his nose and not smell a thing.) The implications of this distinct symptom are pretty important because if you wake up with something like a headache or diarrhea, yes, you might have COVID-19, but if you wake up and can't smell your morning coffee, suddenly, the odds that you have contracted coronavirus are significantly stronger.

"We have long known that people can lose their sense of smell after other viral infections, such as the flu, but the percentage of people who have had this problem with COVID-19 is quite remarkable," James Schwob, a professor of developmental, molecular, and chemical biology at Tufts University School of Medicine, explained in an interview published by the university last week. "Any symptom that can be tied directly to the disease becomes an important one to be aware of, so that it can be used to guide testing and keep people from unknowingly spreading the disease."

Schwob later specifically suggests using coffee as a way to judge your smell. "One of the things that can be done pretty easily, pretty objectively by someone at home would be to take some ground coffee and see how far away you can hold it and still smell it," he continues. "Or do the same with rubbing alcohol or your shampoo. If your nose is not congested and you have trouble recognizing those or other scents that are familiar to you, you might want to call your doctor about getting tested."

And Schwob is not alone. This week, the site Daily Coffee News wrote that their own "review of scientific literature and anecdotal advice from scholars of taste and smell shows dozens of examples of coffee being used as the barometer for a kind of sniff-test for COVID-19, in part for its distinct smell and also for its broad global availability in homes." The site cites an article in the medical journal BMJ that suggests patients could be asked to try smelling coffee, and a Penn State campaign called "Stop. Smell. Be well." that suggests students use something like coffee to check their smell every morning.

"Loss of smell is very specific to COVID-19, but not everyone with SARS-CoV-2 infection reports smell loss. Critically, being able to smell things does not mean you are COVID-free," a pair of Penn State professors wrote last week in The Conversation, explaining the university's campaign. "Still, we encourage you to Stop. Smell. Be well. And if you do lose your sense of smell, please self-isolate and contact a health professional."

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