“Stop and smell the roses” might be a cliche.

But at Penn State University campuses, students, faculty and staff are using a smell test as a helpful, do-it-yourself screening tool to check for COVID-19 infection.

Research has shown that anosmia – loss of smell – is one of the most specific symptoms of COVID-19, said John Hayes, professor of food science and director of the Penn State Sensory Evaluation Center.

So, university researchers developed “peel and sniff” postcards that prompt the user to detect and identify a particular aroma – strawberries, onions, chocolate, or smoke, for example.

If their olfactory senses fail them, they may be have COVID-19.

The cards are part of a public awareness campaign spearheaded by sensory researchers in the College of Agricultural Sciences’ food science department.

The goal is to help people identify COVID-19 infections as fast as possible so they can stop the potential spread of the coronavirus by quarantining, getting a test, and consulting a health care provider.

The cards don’t diagnose whether or not you have COVID-19, but they do indicate a change and act as a warning sign that you should get tested.

“Studies suggest that between half and three-quarters of people with COVID-19 abruptly lose their sense of smell, sometimes in the absence of or before other symptoms,” Hayes said.

Hayes hopes the cards will encourage people to check for sudden smell loss, which can help identify prevent otherwise asymptomatic or presymptomatic people from unknowingly spreading the virus.

He advises people to sniff something each day to check their sense of smell.

“People can simply smell their coffee, flowers, scented candles or other fragrant household items,” said Hayes.

After guessing the scent on the smell-check cards, users can scan a QR code on the card to reveal the aroma and learn more.

The cards are meant to be used by only one person and shouldn’t be shared after they’re used. Users who can’t smell the scent on the card are instructed to self-isolate and contact a health care professional.

The cards also remind users that anosmia is just one symptom of COVID-19, and that they should monitor for all symptoms indicated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Hayes and colleague Alyssa Bakke, staff sensory scientist in the Sensory Evaluation Center, also helped launch the “Stop. Smell. Be Well.” webpage to urge people to make smell checks part of their daily routine.

The page lists other symptoms associated with COVID-19, including fever, dry cough, shortness of breath, aches and fatigue, and addresses the science behind how the virus attacks the sense of smell (the loss of smell is caused by damage to the olfactory nerves).

Hayes and Bakke, who holds a doctorate in food science, are members of an international research team, the Global Consortium for Chemosensory Research, that has studied the link between COVID-19 and smell loss. The pair have collaborated with more than 600 clinicians, scientists and patient advocates in 40 countries in an ongoing study, and so far have surveyed more than 50,000 participants who suffered from recent respiratory illness.

“Our results showed that of all common symptoms of COVID-19, sudden smell loss was the single best predictor of being positive for the disease,” Hayes said. “Other studies are finding similar results. Together, this suggests that sudden smell loss is a better predictor than fever or cough.”

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