The Citizens Handbook
DIY Sniff Test for COVID-19

Testing for COVID-19 is the first line of defense against the pandemic. Unfortunately testing has been erratic, time-consuming and far below the levels required to contain the pandemic.

One of the widely reported symptoms of infection is the loss of the sense of smell. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health have developed an alcohol sniff test to quickly screen people for COVID-19. Most of those infected cannot smell ethyl alcohol at concentrations lower than 25%, unlike those who are free of the virus.
The stiff test will not work for people who have no or a reduced sense of smell, those with a sense of smell impaired through surgery or accident, and those with clogged up nasal passages.

An easy version of the NIH sniff test.
  1. Get a small bottle of unflavored vodka with 40% alcohol.
  2. Carefully mix 5 tablespoons of vodka and 3 tablespoons of water – or 100 mls of vodka and 60 mls of water.
  3. Dip a cotton pad (like those for removing makeup), or a folded paper towel into the mixture.
  4. Hold the pad about 3 mm (half the width of an ordinary pencil) from the end of your nose – and sniff.

If you can smell the alcohol, you're probably okay.
If you cannot smell the alcohol, you may be infected. Wear a surgical mask at all the times when near others (including family members), until you can get a PCR test from a medical testing facility.

If you run a school, a meat-packing plant, or retirement home, you may want to do a lot of testing – and need a lot of 25% alcohol. To figure out how much water to add to various amounts of any starting concentration, use the online dilution calculator.

On-the-ball public health authorities might make tiny foil-wrapped towelettes available everywhere, wetted with 25% alcohol. This would make regular day-to-day screening available everywhere.

Data suggests that a sudden loss of sense of smell is a more common early symptom of COVID-19 than fever across all age groups. It is a 20-fold better predictor of a positive test for COVID-19 in younger people and a 13-fold better indicator in older people than any other symptoms. Based on these findings, using "sniff tests" rather than temperature checks might be a better way of widespread screening in places like airports and hospitality venues.

So why have medical authorities failed to institute sniff tests? The reason is that the sniff test is not perfect. About 20% of people have a reduced sense of smell for various reasons, leading to false positives. And about the same percentage of those infected do not lose their sense of smell, leading to false negatives. But the sniff test is acutally a great screen rather than a definitive test. For good reason, experts at the University of Pennsylvania are recommending self-administered daily sniff tests as a screening system to control the pandemic.


See our summary of COVID research: Better ways to control the pandemic
See also: Citizens step forward in emergencies


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The Citizen's Handbook / Charles Dobson / citizenshandbook.org

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