Recent smell loss is the best predictor of COVID-19: a preregistered, cross-sectional study

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BACKGROUND: COVID-19 has heterogeneous manifestations, though one of the most common symptoms is a sudden loss of smell (anosmia or hyposmia). We investigated whether olfactory loss is a reliable predictor of COVID-19.

METHODS: This preregistered, cross-sectional study used a crowdsourced questionnaire in 23 languages to assess symptoms in individuals self-reporting recent respiratory illness. We quantified changes in chemosensory abilities during the course of the respiratory illness using 0-100 visual analog scales (VAS) for participants reporting a positive (C19+; n=4148) or negative (C19-; n=546) COVID-19 laboratory test outcome. Logistic regression models identified singular and cumulative predictors of COVID-19 status and post-COVID-19 olfactory recovery.

RESULTS: Both C19+ and C19- groups exhibited smell loss, but it was significantly larger in C19+ participants (mean±SD, C19+: -82.5±27.2 points; C19-: -59.8±37.7). Smell loss during illness was the best predictor of COVID-19 in both single and cumulative feature models (ROC AUC=0.72), with additional features providing no significant model improvement. VAS ratings of smell loss were more predictive than binary chemosensory yes/no-questions or other cardinal symptoms, such as fever or cough. Olfactory recovery within 40 days was reported for ~50% of participants and was best predicted by time since illness onset.

CONCLUSIONS: As smell loss is the best predictor of COVID-19, we developed the ODoR-19 tool, a 0-10 scale to screen for recent olfactory loss. Numeric ratings ≤2 indicate high odds of symptomatic COVID-19 (10<OR<4), especially when viral lab tests are impractical or unavailable.

Original languageEnglish
JournalChemical Senses
Early online date25 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - 2021

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