Eur Arch Otorhinolaryngol. 2020 Sep 9. doi: 10.1007/s00405-020-06285-0. Online ahead of print.
BACKGROUND: From the start of the pandemic, many European otolaryngologists observed an unprecendented number of anosmic patients. Early reports proposed that anosmia could be the first or even the only symptom of COVID-19 infection, prompting calls for self-isolation in affected patients.
METHODS: In the present article, we review the COVID-19 anosmia literature and try to answer the following two questions: first, why is COVID-19 infection responsible for such a high incidence of anosmia? Second, in patients with more severe forms is anosmia really less prevalent and why?
RESULTS: In terms of the etiology of olfactory dysfunction, several hypotheses were proposed at the outset of the pandemic; that olfactory cleft inflammation and obstruction caused a localized conductive loss, that there was injury to the sustentacular supporting cells in the olfactory epithelium or, given the known neurotropic potential of coronavirus, that the virus could invade and damage the olfactory bulb. Olfactory cleft obstruction may contribute to the olfactory dysfunction in some patients, perhaps most likely in those that show very early resolution, it cannot account for the loss in all patients. Moreover, disordered regrowth and a predominance of immature neurons have been shown to be associated with parosmia, which is a common finding amongst patients with Covid-related anosmia. A central mechanism therefore certainly seems to be consistent with the group of patients with more prolonged olfactory deficits. Sustentacular cells showing ACE-2 immunohistochemical expression 200 to 700 times greater than nasal or tracheal epithelia seem to be the main SARS-CoV-2 gateway. As the pathophysiology of COVID-19 anosmia seems to be better understood, the question of why patients with a moderate to severe form of COVID-19 infection have less olfactory involvement remains unresolved. Different potential explanations are discussed in this review.
CONCLUSIONS: The last 5 months have benefited from great international collaborative research, first highlighting and then proving the value of loss of smell and taste as a symptom of COVID-19. Adoption of loss of smell into the case definition by international public health bodies will facilitate control of disease transmission.