Losing your sense of taste or smell used to be the telltale sign that you weren’t sick with a cold or the flu – it was almost certainly COVID-19. It was also one of the symptoms found to last longest, often weeks or months after someone otherwise recovers.
But the omicron variant seems to be setting itself apart from prior variants by sparing more people’s sense of taste and smell.
One study released by the U.K. Health Security Agency Friday found that loss of smell or taste occurred in about 13% of omicron cases tracked by the country’s National Health Service. For people infected with the delta variant, the U.K. health agency found loss of smell or taste happened in about 34% of cases.
An earlier – and much smaller case study – out of Norway late last year also found fewer instances of smell and taste loss associated with omicron. The study looked at an omicron outbreak that traced back to a Christmas party where everyone was vaccinated. Of the 81 people who were infected, 12% reported reduced smell and 23% reported reduced taste.
Of the 43 first omicron cases identified in the U.S. in early December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found only three people reported losing taste or smell.
So while loss of taste or smell is still possible with the omicron variant, it’s less common than prior variants. With the original variant of COVID-19, about 48% of infected people were reporting loss of taste or smell, a review of 27 medical studies found.
Taste and smell loss are rarer with omicron, these early studies suggest, but there are other symptoms that are more common. Sore throats were detected in 53% of omicron cases (compared to 34% of delta cases) in the U.K. – though the study notes the higher rate of sore throats could be associated with something else, since more people who tested negative for COVID were also reporting sore throats in the country.
The most common omicron symptoms, British researchers found in December, were runny nose, headache, fatigue, sneezing and sore throat.