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Tasting and enjoying food is an important part of life. Yet, treatment for cancer, and cancer itself, can affect your sense of taste. Sense of taste involves the flavor, texture and smell of food. Influenced by taste buds located mainly on the surface of the tongue, the four main types of taste are sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. Any or all of these may be altered during or after cancer treatment, changing how you perceive flavors.
During your cancer journey, the flavors of some foods may taste unusually strong or intense. You may be more sensitive to sour or bitter tastes and less sensitive to sweet foods. Some foods may taste bland, bitter, different than normal, the same as other foods, or have no taste at all. You may have an aversion to certain foods. You may also notice a metallic, chemical, or burnt taste in your mouth. Since smell and taste are closely linked, changes in your sense of smell affects how foods taste.
When you have cancer, changes in taste and smell may be related to a variety of causes. For example, taste changes may result from the cancer itself, since tumors can secrete substances that change your taste and reduce your drive to eat.
Taste changes are also a common side effect of some cancer treatments. For instance, chemotherapy, which is designed to destroy rapidly-dividing cancer cells, can also damage normal cells that divide rapidly, such as those in the mouth. The spread of chemotherapy drugs in tissues of the mouth and/or damage to taste receptors can also cause taste changes. In addition, the association of chemotherapy with nausea and vomiting may cause a loss of taste.
Radiation therapy can also cause taste changes. Radiation, particularly to the head and neck, can damage tissues that are rapidly multiplying, like taste buds. Radiation can also damage the salivary glands, resulting in dry mouth. Since saliva mixes with food and helps to stimulate the taste buds, when there is less of it, food does not come into contact with the taste buds as easily.
Other causes of taste changes include surgery to the nose, throat or mouth, as well as biological therapies, such as interleukin and interferon. Taste changes can also result from dental problems, oral infections, mucositis, dry mouth, or damage to the nerves involved in tasting. In addition, some medications, such as antibiotics, can also cause taste changes.
Some taste changes are temporary, while others may take months or even years to return to normal. How long taste changes last is different for each individual and depends on many factors, such as your cancer treatment regime.
For example, taste changes caused by chemotherapy usually begin a week after starting chemotherapy and last until about three to four weeks after the end of treatment. Taste changes caused by radiation treatment can begin several weeks after the first session and begin to improve from three weeks to two months after completion of treatment. However, sometimes your sense of taste may not return to the way it was before treatment, especially if you receive radiation therapy directly to the mouth.
While it may seem like a minor side effect of cancer treatment, taste changes can significantly impact your nutritional well being and quality of life. For instance, taste changes can affect your ability to enjoy food, which can lead to loss of appetite, food aversions, vitamin deficiency, weight loss, and malnutrition. Being able to maintain good nutrition during cancer treatment can help support immune function, rebuild body tissue, decrease your risk of infection, improve your strength and energy, and help you better tolerate treatment.
In addition to the physical impact, changes in sense of taste can also cause emotional distress and sometimes even lead to depression. Therefore, while there may be little that can be done to prevent taste changes, it is important to manage these changes when they occur. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to meet your nutritional needs and reduce the impact of taste changes on your quality of life.
NOTE: THIS INFORMATION IS NOT INTENDED NOR IMPLIED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE. YOU SHOULD ALWAYS REPORT ANY CHANGES IN TASTE AND SMELL TO YOUR PHYSICIAN IMMEDIATELY.
NOTE: THIS INFORMATION IS NOT INTENDED NOR IMPLIED TO BE A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL MEDICAL ADVICE. ALWAYS SEEK THE ADVICE OF YOUR PHYSICIAN OR OTHER QUALIFIED HEALTHCARE PROVIDER REGARDING TASTE CHANGES.
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