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Researchers at Baton Rouge General Use Taste Test to Predict COVID-19 Severity

  • Category: News
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  • Written By: Baton Rouge General

BATON ROUGE, La. – Researchers at Baton Rouge General have discovered that a simple taste test may predict how different people respond to COVID-19. Early research shows a connection between a person’s ability to taste certain bitter flavors and the ability to fight upper respiratory tract infections, which could help identify people at higher risk for hospitalization or intensive care.

The perception of taste, controlled by taste receptors, is known to impact a person’s response to respiratory infections and sinus infections. But, Baton Rouge rhinologist Dr. Henry Barham is the first to apply that connection to COVID-19. His initial study looked at patients who had previously tested positive for the coronavirus and how their taste test results corresponded to their symptoms. Now, Dr. Barham, along with Dr. Christian A. Hall and Dr. Mohamed A. Taha, is working on a larger study.
The taste tests place people in one of three groups: “non-tasters,” “super-tasters,” or “tasters.” The research shows that those categories could predict symptoms and severity of a COVID-19 infection.

  • Non-tasters: up to 25 percent of people can’t detect certain bitter flavors at all. This group is at a higher risk for developing more severe symptoms and potentially hospitalization from COVID-19.
  • Super-tasters: 25 percent can detect exceedingly small quantities of bitter flavors. This group is most likely to be asymptomatic.
  • Tasters: Everyone else in between these two extremes.This group is likely to display mild to moderate symptoms often not requiring hospitalization, unless they have existing underlying conditions.

“As we now know, a new loss of taste and smell are hallmark symptoms of COVID-19,” said Dr. Barham. “That connection prompted us to take a closer look at how a person’s taste receptors relate to their body’s immune response to COVID.”

Dr. Barham’s first study, published in the International Forum of Allergy & Rhinology, was conducted in July and included 100 patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 then recovered. Based on the taste strip test, the results showed that 100 percent of the patients requiring hospitalization were classified as non‐tasters.

“It was at that point we could see that taste disturbance, specifically global loss of taste, appears to correlate with the clinical course specific to each individual,” Dr. Barham said. “We took these results and built a second, broader study that would allow us to test people before they contracted COVID-19 and predict which group they may fall into based on their taste test results. Over time, we are monitoring the group and whether or not our predictions are correct.”

The test itself is quick and easy and is conducted by placing four tiny strips of paper on the tongue, one at a time. After each strip, Dr. Barham and his team asks the person to report flavor and intensity on a scale of 1-10. For example, the strip could taste very bitter or mildly bitter. Based on their ability to taste each strip, people are classified into one of the three taster groups.

If the first study holds true, this research could help medical experts better understand why people are affected so differently by COVID-19. It could allow people at high risk to make more informed choices about where they go and how they interact with others, or even change how we prioritize vaccinations. In addition, it could help identify people who may be infected with COVID without showing symptoms, allowing them to take extra precautions not to spread the virus.

Dr. Barham and his team are currently conducting the second study at Sinus and Nasal Specialists of Louisiana, a practice Dr. Barham co-founded with Dr. Hall in 2016 on the campus of Baton Rouge General - Bluebonnet. They are not accepting new participants at this time.

About Baton Rouge General Medical Center

Baton Rouge General Medical Center is the area’s first community hospital with 588 licensed beds between two campuses. Baton Rouge General opened its doors in 1900, and has provided the Greater Baton Rouge community with high-quality healthcare for generations. An accredited teaching hospital since 1991, Baton Rouge General serves as an affiliate of Tulane University School of Medicine, and offers other medical education programs, including a School of Nursing, School of Radiologic Technology, Family Medicine Residency Program, Internal Medicine Residency Program, and Sports Medicine Fellowship Program. For more information, visit BRGeneral.org, find us on Facebook at Facebook.com/BatonRougeGeneral and follow us on Twitter at @BRGeneral.