Skip to content

The One Sure Sign You've Caught COVID, Says Surgeon General

"The one symptom...that really differentiates flu from COVID is loss of taste or smell.”
Tongue covid taste

With coronavirus cases and hospitalizations hitting record numbers, you may be wondering if every cough or sniffle is COVID-19 or the flu. Both are highly contagious, so you should contact a medical professional immediately if you think you have either, but one symptom is unique to coronavirus, according to the US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, who is a member of the White House coronavirus task force. Read on to hear his full warning, and to ensure your health and the health of others, don't miss these Sure Signs You've Already Had Coronavirus.

Anosmia and Ageusia are Common Signs of COVID-19, Says Surgeon General

"The one symptom that I would alert people to that really differentiates flu from COVID is loss of taste or smell," Adams said on NPR's All Things Considered. "If you get that symptom, then you need to be reaching out to your health provider right away and going in and getting a COVID test."

The medical terms are anosmia—the loss of smell—and dysgeusia—an altered sense of taste.

"A change in—or loss of—someone's sense of smell or taste are now recognized as core symptoms of coronavirus," the BBC says. 

It can last for a few days—or longer. Says the BBC, an "international team of researchers surveyed 187 Italians who had the virus but who were not ill enough to be admitted to hospital. The individuals were asked to rate their sense of smell or taste soon after they were diagnosed and again a month later. A total of 113 reported an alteration in their sense of smell and/or taste:

  • 55 said they had recovered fully
  • 46 reported improvements in their symptoms
  • 12 found their symptoms were unchanged or worse."

The study, published in JAMA Otolaryngology–Head & Neck Surgery, shows those senses may never come back.

"Almost 90% of people who lost their sense of smell or taste while infected with Covid-19 improved or recovered within a month, a study has found. The study, in Italy, found 49% of patients had fully regained their sense of smell or taste and 40% reported improvements," reports the BBC. "But 10% said their symptoms remained the same or had worsened. Given the scale of the pandemic, experts warn hundreds of thousands of people could face longer-term problems."

One other difference between COVID and the flu: "COVID seems to spread much more easily than the flu, and it causes much more serious illnesses in some people," warned Adams. So get tested if you lose your sense of taste or smell. And get a flu vaccine if you haven't had one yet.

Dr. Adams Admitted There is COVID-Fatigue, Leading to Spread

In the NPR interview, Dr. Adams said COVID fatigue was one reason cases were soaring. "The virus hit different places of the country at different points," he said. "And so you've had people who've been doing these things since February, March, April, but they didn't really start to see the wave until later on. And they're just plain tired."

"Because people in North Dakota or people in Arkansas or people in California may not feel that they have to take the same measures as someone in New York City," he continued. "So I've been in South Dakota. I've been in Wisconsin. I've been in Ohio just over the past two weeks, really speaking directly to people, helping them understand their surges that are going on and the measures that they need to take at their state level."

Adams said nonetheless, we must all remain vigilant in following the fundamentals. "The three W's are most important if you do come together around other people: wear a mask, wash your hands and frequently disinfect commonly touched surfaces, and watch your distance from other people," Adams says. "And if you can't do these things in this environment where you're planning on coming together, then you should probably stay home because, again, this virus is incredibly unforgiving."

As for yourself, do everything you can to prevent getting—and spreading—COVID-19 in the first place: Wear your face mask, get tested if you think you have coronavirus, avoid crowds (and bars, and house parties), practice social distancing, only run essential errands, wash your hands regularly, disinfect frequently touched surfaces, stay outdoors more than indoors, and to get through this pandemic at your healthiest, don't miss these 35 Places You're Most Likely to Catch COVID.