Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Taste and smell changes

What are taste and smell changes?

Taste and smell are part of the body’s alarm system, detecting warning messages that can prevent against the intake of food-borne or environmental toxins. These senses are also key to stimulating food intake to feed the body’s nutritional and energy needs. That’s why changes to taste or smell can have repercussions that significantly alter a patient’s quality of life.

Cancer treatments such as radiation therapy, surgical oncology and chemotherapy may damage taste buds, resulting in loss of appetite and weight loss, or in more severe cases, in malnutrition. Distorted senses may also produce a metallic or bitter taste, or impair the patient’s ability to detect certain odors. Alterations in the sense of smell may also affect the ability to taste many foods.

How likely are cancer patients to experience taste or smell changes?

Research suggests many cancer patients experience changes to their taste and smell, causing anxiety, nutritional complications and quality-of-life indications. According to a review published in 2009 in The Journal of Supportive Oncology, slightly more than two-thirds (68 percent) of cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy reported a change in sensory perception, including a reduction or loss in taste sensitivities or a metallic taste in the mouth. Another 2010 study published in the peer-reviewed journal The Oncologist found that nearly 70 percent of patients receiving chemotherapy reported an altered sense of taste.

How can integrative care help?

Nutrition therapy

Dietitians may help patients with changes in taste and smell, also called altered sensory perception. Using plastic or wooden utensils rather than metal ones may help, particularly when patients experience a metallic taste. Patients may also be advised to avoid canned foods, microwaved foods and artificial sweeteners, to use non-meat protein sources, marinades, different herbs and spices, and to eat more tart foods. In some cases, dietitians may recommend zinc supplements, which may improve taste alterations. For those experiencing sensitivity to smells, avoiding cafeterias and restaurants with overwhelming odors may prevent nausea. Similarly, patients may find that they can tolerate cold foods better than hot foods, since hot-plated foods typically carry a stronger aroma.