Taste and Smell Changes

Certain types of cancer and its treatment can change your senses of taste and smell. Common causes include:

  • Certain kinds of tumors in the head and neck area
  • Radiation to the head and neck area
  • Certain kinds of chemotherapy and targeted therapy
  • Mouth sores or dryness due to certain treatments
  • Some medications used to help with side effects or other non-cancer problems

What to look for

Taste and smell changes can often affect your appetite. They might be described as:

  • Not being able to smell things other people do, or noticing a reduced sense of smell.
  • Noticing things smell different or certain smells are stronger
  • Having a bitter or metallic taste in the mouth.
  • Food tasting too salty or sweet.
  • Food not having much taste.

Usually these changes go away after treatment ends, but sometimes they can last a long time.

What the patient and caregiver can do

  • Try using plastic forks, spoons, and knives and glass cups and plates.
  • Try sugar-free lemon drops, gum, or mints.
  • Try fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables instead of canned.
  • Season foods with tart flavors. Use lemon wedges, lemonade, citrus fruits, vinegar, and pickled foods. (If you have a sore mouth or throat, do not do this.)
  • Try flavoring foods with new tastes or spices (onion, garlic, chili powder, basil, oregano, rosemary, tarragon, BBQ sauce, mustard, ketchup, or mint).
  • Counter a salty taste with added sweeteners, a sweet taste with added lemon juice and salt, and a bitter taste with added sweeteners.
  • Rinse your mouth with a baking soda, salt, and water mouthwash before eating to help foods taste better. (Mix 1 teaspoon salt and 1 teaspoon baking soda in 4 cups of water. Shake well before swishing and spitting.)
  • Keep your mouth clean and brush your teeth to help ease bad tastes.
  • Serve foods cold or at room temperature. This can decrease the foods’ tastes and smells, making them easier to tolerate.
  • Freeze fruits like cantaloupe, grapes, oranges, and watermelon, and eat them as frozen treats.
  • Eat fresh vegetables. They may be more tempting than canned or frozen ones.
  • Try marinating meats to make them tender.
  • If red meats taste strange, try other protein-rich foods like chicken, fish, beans or peas, tofu, nuts, seeds, eggs, or cheese.
  • Blend fresh fruits into shakes, ice cream, or yogurt.
  • To reduce smells, cover beverages and drink through a straw; choose foods that don’t need to be cooked; and avoid eating in rooms that are stuffy or too warm.

 

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Besser J, Grant BL, American Cancer Society. What to Eat During Cancer Treatment. Atlanta, GA: American Cancer Society; 2018.

National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN). Clinical practice guidelines in oncology: Palliative care. Version 2.2019. Accessed at www.nccn.org/professionals/physician_gls/pdf/palliative.pdf on January 21, 2020.

Oncology Nursing Society (ONS). Anorexia. Accessed at https://www.ons.org/pep/anorexia on January 21, 2020. 

References

Last Medical Review: February 1, 2020 Last Revised: February 1, 2020

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