Taste Changes

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 11/2018

Some people with cancer have taste changes during or after cancer treatment. Here are some common taste changes:

  • Foods may taste differently than before, especially bitter, sweet, and/or salty foods.

  • Some foods may taste bland.

  • Every food may taste the same.

  • You may have a metallic or chemical taste in your mouth, especially after eating meat or other high-protein foods.

Taste changes can lead to loss of appetite and weight loss. Also, it can cause a strong dislike of certain foods, also called food aversions. Tell your health care team if you have any taste changes that are affecting your ability to eat. Relieving such side effects is an important part of cancer care and treatment. This is called palliative care or supportive care.

Causes of taste changes

There are several possible causes of taste changes related to cancer and its treatment. Understanding the cause can help you and your health care team better manage these changes.

  • Chemotherapy. Taste changes are a common side effect of chemotherapy. About half of people receiving chemotherapy have taste changes. But these taste changes usually stop about 3 to 4 weeks after treatment ends.

    The following types of chemotherapy are commonly known to cause taste changes:

    • Cisplatin (available as a generic drug)

    • Cyclophosphamide (available as a generic drug)

    • Doxorubicin (available as a generic drug)

    • Fluorouracil (5-FU, Efudex)

    • Paclitaxel (Taxol)

    • Vincristine (Oncovin, Vincasar PFS)

  • Other medicines. Some other medicines can cause taste changes, including:

    • Some opioid medicines used to relieve pain, such as morphine

    • Antibiotics, which are used to treat infections

  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy to the neck and head can harm the taste buds and salivary glands, causing taste changes. It may also cause changes to the sense of smell. Changes to the sense of smell may affect how foods taste.

    Taste changes caused by radiation treatment usually start to improve 3 weeks to 2 months after treatment ends. Taste changes may continue to improve for about a year. If salivary glands are harmed, then the sense of taste may not fully return to the way it was before treatment.

  • Other causes. Other causes of taste changes include:

    • Surgery to the nose, throat, or mouth

    • Biological therapies, such as interleukin-2 (IL-2), called aldesleukin (Proleukin)

    • Dry mouth

    • Damage to the nerves involved in tasting

    • Mouth infections

    • Dental or gum problems

    • Nausea and vomiting

Managing taste problems

Usually, there are no specific treatments for taste problems. But sometimes treating the cause of the taste changes can help. For example, treating causes such as mouth infections, dry mouth, or dental or gum problems can improve taste changes.

Taste changes can make it hard for some people to eat healthy foods and maintain their weight. If this is true for you, talk with your doctor or a dietitian. Also, consider the following tips to cope with taste changes:

  • Choose foods that smell and taste good, even if the food is not familiar.

  • Get rid of cooking smells by using an exhaust fan, cooking on an outdoor grill, or buying precooked foods. Cold or room-temperature foods also smell less.

  • Eat cold or frozen foods, which may taste better than hot foods. But avoid cold foods if you are receiving chemotherapy with oxaliplatin (Eloxatin). This drug makes it hard to eat or drink anything cold.

  • Use plastic utensils and glass cookware to lessen a metallic taste.

  • Try sugar-free gum or hard candies with flavors such as mint, lemon, or orange. These flavors can help mask a bitter or metallic taste in the mouth.

  • If red meats do not taste good, then try other protein sources. This may include poultry, eggs, fish, peanut butter, beans, or dairy products.

  • Marinate meats in fruit juices, sweet wines, salad dressings, or other sauces.

  • Flavor foods with herbs, spices, sugar, lemon, or sauces.

  • Avoid eating 1 to 2 hours before chemotherapy and up to 3 hours after chemotherapy. This helps prevent food aversions caused by nausea and vomiting.

  • Rinse your mouth with a salt and baking soda solution before meals. Try a solution of ½ teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of baking soda in 1 cup of warm water. It may help stop bad tastes in the mouth.

  • Keep a clean and healthy mouth by brushing frequently and flossing daily.

  • Think about taking zinc sulfate supplements, which may improve taste for some people. But talk with your doctor before taking any dietary supplements, especially during active treatment.

Related Resources

Dental and Oral Health