Taste and Smell Changes

People often experience taste and smell changes when they have advanced breast cancer or when they are getting chemotherapy or radiation therapy to treat cancer. The cancer treatments themselves cause some of these changes.1 But there’s actually some evidence that your own immune response against the cancer cells in your body may cause some of these changes, as well.2 (Your immune system works to fight foreign invaders like viruses and bacteria. This helps protect you from getting sick.)

Many doctors do not focus on taste and smell changes, because they are not serious or life-threatening.1 But they can have a major impact on your quality of life, including your appetite and your ability to enjoy food.

What kinds of changes do people experience?

The fourth most common symptom for people with advanced cancer is changes in taste.1 In fact, one study found that 70 percent of people on chemotherapy have an altered sense of taste.3 That’s because cancer treatments may alter or damage the taste buds in your mouth. These are the cells on your tongue that detect the basic flavors of sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory (umami).

For many people, foods may taste extra bitter or metallic. Food can also taste too sweet or too salty. There are ways to change what you eat and how you prepare your meals, so food will taste better. Play around with your food choices and preparations until you find techniques that work.4

Tips for managing taste and smell changes

Here are some ideas to help you get your nutritional and social needs met, even with the taste changes that happen during cancer treatment:4

  • Try eating with plastic or wooden utensils and glass or ceramic cups and plates if a food tastes metallic.
  • Try fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables instead of canned, if the food tastes metallic.
  • Try seasoning your foods with tart (sour) flavors. Squeeze lemon juice onto foods. Use lemon wedges, citrus, pickled foods, and vinegar to flavor your foods.
  • If red meat tastes strange or metallic, eat other sources of protein including chicken, pork, fish, beans, nuts, cheese, eggs, yogurt, and tofu.
  • Try marinating meat to make it more tender and appealing. Marinades can also add sweet or tart flavors to your meats.
  • Try flavoring foods, including vegetables, with new spices or seasonings such as herbs (basil, oregano, mint, rosemary), onions and garlic, mustard, ketchup, or other sauces and gravies.
  • Try adding sweet flavors to your foods if they taste bitter or salty and tart flavors if your food tastes too sweet.
  • Rinse your mouth with baking soda, salt, and water before eating. Also, brush your teeth often to cut down on bad tastes.
  • Try sugar-free lemon candies, gum, or mints.
  • Serve foods cold or at room temperature to cut down on odors that might make you feel nauseated.
  • Cover hot liquids with lids to cut down on smells.
  • In some cases, dieticians may recommend adding zinc supplements, which can help restore your normal taste under certain circumstances.3

Tips for managing reduced appetite

Sometimes when you experience changes in the way food tastes, it can make you less interested in eating. Here are some ideas to help increase your desire to eat.5 This is important for getting your nutritional needs met and for your social needs, as well.

  • Eat small, frequent snack-type meals throughout the day, and keep snacks on hand for when you get hungry.
  • Eat foods that you enjoy, even milkshakes or puddings.
  • Invite friends for mealtimes, so you add pleasure to eating.
  • Try adding bright colors and visual appeal to your foods, so you are more interested in eating.

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