I-TEAM: COVID-19 got your tongue? Why taste and smell loss is a symptom

The CDC officially listed the loss of taste and smell as a symptom of the coronavirus at the...
The CDC officially listed the loss of taste and smell as a symptom of the coronavirus at the end of April.(WRDW)
Published: May. 26, 2020 at 6:09 PM EDT
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Tuesday, May 26, 2020

AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) -- We have an update to a story that we first started investigating back in March: could the loss of taste and smell be an early symptom of coronavirus?

We first started asking questions and looked at data from other countries. The CDC did eventually add it to its list of symptoms and ss it turns out, this could be a very important symptom. Important enough for researchers at the Medical College of Georgia want to take a closer look.

We sat down with doctors working on a new study.

"A lot of people complain about it, and I don't think that many people are actually testing this objectively," Dr. Elizabeth Rutkowski said.

That could be because the CDC did not officially name "new loss of taste and smell" as a COVID-19 symptom until the very end of April.

"Actually, that was one of the first symptoms I had, and when I reported it on the video to the doctors, they were like 'You know, this the first we're hearing of this,'" Jones said.

It wouldn't be the last. Fast-forward to today: Jones says his sense of taste and smell still aren't back to normal. It's something the doctors behind a new study at the Medical College of Georgia at AU want to study.

Dr. Elizabeth Rutkowski and Dr. David Hess believe they know how it happens.

"So these coronaviruses are neurotrophic, which means they go to the brain," Hess said.

The virus first enters your body through respiratory droplets, so your mouth and nose are first to sound the alarm.

"The olfactory bulbs and tracks are located right at the top of your nose and the bottom of the brain," Rutkowski said. "And so that's why we think that patients develop early smell loss."

Early loss of taste also comes from a direct path: taste receptors in your tongue lead straight to your brain stem. And over the next several years, they'll have a neuroscientist conduct taste test.

"And I understand her husband's a chef, and how do like that? How's that for a spouse? She's an expert. She studies taste all the time," Hess said.

For the smell portion, doctors have a plan to measure that, too.

"It involves a scratch and sniff booklet with multiple-choice responses asking whether or not something smells, like bubblegum or root beer or strawberry," Rutkowski said.

Sounds simple, but these tests are pieces to a much larger puzzle including how a common symptom.

"I just felt like I couldn't breathe. I'd get up and go to the restroom, and I would be out of breath," Mayor Jones said.

It might not be linked directly to your lungs, but the part of the brain that controls breathing. Doctors also wonder if COVID-19 could cause other problems down the road, like problems with memory or maybe even anxiety.

In the meantime, doctors will be working with genetic epidemiologists to determine how race is a factor. Is it genetic - environmental -- or both?

We will be looking into the answers to those questions.

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