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The information on this page was reviewed and approved by
Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on September 21, 2021.

Taste and smell changes from cancer and cancer treatment

Your body has taste and smell mechanisms to help you survive—they warn you away from spoiled food and substances that could harm you. But these senses are also there to entice you to eat, so when food tastes and/or smells different, it may turn off your appetite. This may lead to nutrient deficiencies and weight loss.

Most of the time, changes in taste and smell are temporary side effects of cancer treatment. However, there are things you can do to help yourself in the meantime, both on your own and with the help of your care team.

What causes changes in taste and smell

Certain head and neck cancers may cause changes to your sense of taste and smell. But oftentimes, these are side effects of cancer treatment for any type of cancer.

  • Chemotherapy changes receptor cells in your mouth. If you’ve had chemotherapy, you may notice that your sense of smell has increased or that you’re more sensitive to certain foods. With this comes the possibility that your sense of taste may be affected, too. About 75 percent of people who undergo chemotherapy have some sort of change in their taste. While your sense of smell and of taste change as you progress through chemotherapy treatment, this usually goes away within a few weeks or months after its completion.
  • Radiation therapy for cancer, especially when it’s targeted to your head and neck, may cause damage to your taste buds and salivary glands. However, you may not notice symptoms for two or three weeks after treatment begins.
  • Surgery on any part of your oral cavity, such as your mouth or tongue, may affect the number of remaining taste buds. This may lead to a decreased sense of taste.

Other treatments and medications that may also affect your sense of taste and/or smell include antibiotics, opioids (for pain) and immunotherapies such as interleukin-2.

Sometimes, other side effects of treatment—such as nausea and vomiting, mouth sores or dry mouth—may also affect how foods taste and smell.

Signs you may notice

Instead of the aromas and flavors you’re familiar with, you may notice more of a bitter, metallic or rancid taste when you eat. Sweet treats may suddenly taste sour, or other foods may seem too sweet. It’s possible that your favorite foods just don’t taste the same anymore, or that you have new cravings for sweet foods.

What to do

There are many ways to cope with a loss of or decrease in taste or smell. It’s important to tailor these tips to your situation in order to meet your nutritional needs.

Try food swaps:

  • If a particular food is giving you trouble, try something else in that food group. For example, if red meat doesn’t taste good, go for another form of protein such as chicken, eggs, fish or a protein substitute such as soy.
  • Canned fruits and vegetables may leave you with a metallic taste in your mouth or make an already metallic taste worse, so opt for fresh fruits and vegetables when possible, and frozen when these aren’t available.
  • Consider eating foods not normally on your personal menu—they may taste novel or enticing to you now. Just make sure that when you try something new, you aren’t already feeling queasy because this could cause you to dislike the new food automatically.

If you can’t tolerate pungent smells, avoid foods that are strongly seasoned or let off a strong aroma as they cook, like cruciferous vegetables. On the other hand, if you’re having a hard time tasting food, you may try adding lots of herbs and other flavor enhancers to the dish.

Change up how you’re eating:

  • If you’re having problems with a metallic taste in your mouth, silverware may make it worse, so switch to plastic utensils. Rinse and reuse them to minimize plastic waste.
  • Cold or room-temperature foods are less odorous than hot foods and may be easier to tolerate. Try yogurt, sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs and slices of cold roast chicken.
  • It may also help to better coordinate meals with your cancer treatments. For example, eat a lighter meal a few hours before chemotherapy if you find you have nausea and vomiting afterward.
  • You also don’t have to stick to a regular mealtime schedule. Eat whenever you’re hungry and don’t force yourself to eat when you don’t want to.

Mask certain tastes with other foods:

  • If a food tastes too sweet, add salt or lemon juice to help balance out the flavor. If you’re dealing with a sore mouth, avoid acidic foods such as lemon.
  • Dilute overly sweet liquids with water or ice.
  • If certain foods taste too bitter, balance this by adding in something sweet, such as honey or sugar.
  • You may find seasoning foods helps mask the taste of what you’re eating.
  • Try different sauces, herbs and spices to see if these make your meal taste better.

Consider zinc supplements:

  • Zinc is an important nutrient in your body that plays a role in taste.
  • If you’re running low, it may affect your ability to taste food.
  • Ask your health-care team about possibly starting a supplement.

Seek out nutritional support:

If you’re losing weight from not eating, developing a nutrient deficiency or just needing more personalized advice, consult with an oncology dietitian at your cancer center or hospital. He or she may work with you to develop an eating plan that’s right for you, safeguard against malnutrition, and help you live well during and after your cancer treatment.

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