Taste Changes

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 01/2020

Some people 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 have the same taste.

  • 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. It can cause a strong dislike of certain foods, also called food aversions. Tell your health care team if you have any taste changes, especially if they 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.

What causes taste changes during cancer treatment?

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 relieve or manage these changes.

  • Medications to treat cancer. Taste changes are a common side effect of chemotherapy. About half of people receiving chemotherapy have taste changes. This usually stops about 3 to 4 weeks after treatment ends.

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

    • Cisplatin (Platinol)

    • Cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan)

    • Doxorubicin (Adriamycin)

    • Fluorouracil (5-FU, Efudex)

    • Paclitaxel (Taxol, Abraxane)

    • Vincristine (Oncovin, Vincasar PFS)

    Immunotherapy, also called biologic therapy, can also cause taste changes, including interleukin-2 (IL-2, Aldesleukin, Proleukin.)

  • Other medicines. Medicines used to treat side effects can cause taste changes, including:

    • Some opioids used to relieve pain, such as morphine

    • Antibiotics, used to treat infections

  • Radiation therapy. Radiation therapy to the neck or 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 can include:

How can taste problems be treated?

Often, there are no specific treatments for taste problems. 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.

Consider the following tips to cope with taste changes:

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

  • If you are sensitive to smells, get rid of cooking odors. Use an exhaust fan, cooking on an outdoor grill, or buy precooked foods. Cold or room-temperature foods smell less.

  • Eat cold or frozen foods, which may taste better than hot foods. However, avoid cold foods if you are receiving chemotherapy with oxaliplatin (Eloxatin). This drug can make you sensitive to 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.

  • Avoid red meats if they do not taste good. Try other protein sources like 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 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. Mix 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. Talk with your doctor before taking any dietary supplements, especially during active cancer treatment.

  • Ask your cancer team about medicines such as marinol (delta-9-tetrahydrocannabinol (THC)) and megestrol acetate as these may help improve taste.

Related Resources

Dental and Oral Health

Small Changes to Help Food Taste Better When You Have Cancer

How to Manage Food Anxiety When You Have Cancer