Person smelling laundry.
Individuals whose sense of smell has changed since January 2020 or who have tested positive for COVID-19 can now take a survey so VCU researchers can get a longitudinal view of how COVID-19 affects patients' sense of smell and taste. (Getty Images)

Noticed a change in your sense of smell or taste? These experts want to hear about it.

VCU researchers have launched a survey to better understand how a loss of sense of smell and taste could be connected to COVID-19.

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Because loss of sense of smell has become a frequently reported symptom of the novel coronavirus, researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University have released a survey for people who have experienced a change in their sense of smell or taste since January or have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

The survey launched April 6 and will allow researchers, led by principal investigator Evan Reiter, M.D., professor in the Department of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery at the VCU School of Medicine, to study the potential link between an individual’s COVID-19 diagnosis and a loss of their sense of smell, called anosmia, or a loss of their sense of taste, called ageusia.

Reiter and his team encourage those who have experienced changes to their sense of smell or taste this year or who have had a COVID-19 diagnosis to access and participate in the survey.

“There are studies looking at loss of smell due to viral infections after the fact, but there are very few studies looking at loss of sense of smell prospectively,” said Reiter, an otolaryngologist at VCU Health. “More often, our research is looking at the effect of viral infections on smell and taste long after they’ve run their course and, thus, without the capability to confirm which specific virus is the culprit. In the current unique circumstance, we have many patients who have had objective testing to confirm that they have a specific virus, COVID-19, and then we can follow them as they go through their smell or taste issue so we can understand how it changes, when it changes and when recovery occurs.”

VCU School of Medicine faculty Richard Costanzo, Ph.D., professor emeritus in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics, and Reiter run the Smell and Taste Disorders Center at VCU Health — Costanzo as its research director and Reiter as its medical director. The center is one of few nationwide that offers specific testing to evaluate patients with smell and taste disorders.

“Being a specialty clinic, we’re focused on this area where people depend on us to provide information about the time course and the etiology of these smell and taste losses,” Costanzo said. “We know, for example, head injury, certain other viral infections, other kinds of medical conditions and a decline related to aging can cause a loss of smell or taste. This is a focus area that we would love to have more information about, and this is an opportunity to help advance the field.”

Along with Costanzo, otolaryngologist Daniel Coelho, M.D., the G. Douglas Hayden Professor of Otologic and Neurotologic Skull Base Surgery at VCU, and Zachary Kons, a rising third-year medical student at VCU, are co-investigators on the study, which is open to participants nationally.

As the VCU School of Medicine and other medical schools nationally limit students’ participation in activities involving patient contact based on guidance from the Association of American Medical Colleges, Kons said working with his co-investigators on this research is a way to stay connected to the field of medicine in the day to day.

“I’ve learned so much from them every day — how to put together a good study design, how to do it quickly,” Kons said. “A lot of the time you’ll do a research study with a plan to get a question answered in two years or a year and a half. That timeline doesn’t apply right now.

“It’s been really interesting to do things quickly, and it feels good to be involved. As medical students, we’ve all found ways [to stay involved], and this is my way.”

The survey will allow researchers to get information from participants to assess their current status and follow up over time to get a longitudinal view of how COVID-19 affects patients’ senses of smell and taste.

Reiter said he hopes the study will help the team determine the time frame and chance of recovery for those experiencing loss of smell or taste related to COVID-19 so doctors can provide an accurate prognosis for potential recovery of these senses.

“In previous cases where a patient presents with symptoms of a virus, we can’t really test these patients because the virus has gone and they’re left with this anosmia,” Costanzo said. “But in the case of COVID-19, it may be the first opportunity to actually correlate a positive test for a virus with medical symptoms, including anosmia.”