Most people are told before beginning chemotherapy to expect changes to their body. Despite being warned, it still takes most patients by surprise when a favorite food suddenly tastes or smells awful.
However, changes to your sense of taste, and its close cousin smell, happen for approximately 50 percent of everyone who undergoes chemotherapy.1
Why taste changes with chemo
Chemotherapy changes your sense of taste in a variety of ways, depending on the drug or drugs you’re taking. Radiation too can impact your sense of taste, especially when it’s directed to the head or neck.
Doctors believe these changes in taste and smell occur because the chemotherapy creates changes in the taste buds and salivary glands. Taste and smell are related because the olfactory nerve runs up the back of the throat into the nasal passage.
Certain chemotherapies and biological therapies are known to impact taste, and sometimes drugs prescribed to combat the side effects of chemo also affect taste, including opioids and some antibiotics. Dry mouth, nausea and vomiting are all common side effects of chemo that may alter your perception of smell.
How tastes change with chemo
How your taste buds will be impacted varies greatly. Some cancer patients report that foods simply taste differently, or all foods taste bland, or all foods taste the same. Still others report a metallic taste that won’t go away or comes on only with certain foods. Many people experience dry mouth.
Some people report this experience with all foods. Others say that it’s only bitter, sweet or salty foods taste abnormal or bad, while some report that meat and other high-protein foods taste metallic.
How to combat bad tastes
It’s vital you get enough calories and nutrition during chemotherapy to prevent excessive weight loss, but that can be hard if everything tastes the same or smells terrible. Here are a few tips to combat the taste changes that may come with chemotherapy:
First and foremost, go with it. If a food suddenly smells or tastes bad, don’t make yourself eat it.
Embrace the mysterious new you. Let yourself explore new foods that smell and taste good to you now, even if you’ve never tried the food before. One member of the BladderCancer.net community reported a sudden, deep love of Fresca for the duration of his chemotherapy that went away after chemo ended.
Eat more cold foods or room-temperature foods. Cold foods have less smell and less intense flavors.
Citrus flavors, especially lemon, sometimes help cut bad tastes that won’t go away.
Reduce food smells by cooking outside on a grill or buy precooked foods. Use a closed drink cup with a straw if liquids smell bad to you.
Tart flavors such as lemons may taste better so try citrus flavors and pickled foods. However, if you have a sore mouth or throat, avoid acidic foods.2
Use plastic utensils and glassware to reduce metallic tastes.
Eat smaller meals more frequently.3
Try rinsing your mouth with a solution of salt and baking soda to neutralize bad tastes. Mix ½ teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of baking soda in 1 cup of warm water.1
Brush and floss more frequently.
Will it get better?
The good news is that most people regain their sense of taste three to four weeks after chemo ends, while others continue to notice changes in taste for up to a year.1 However, some people report that old favorites never taste the same again or are avoided because it becomes associated with a time of nausea and vomiting.
American Society of Clinical Oncology. https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/side-effects/taste-changes. Accessed July 2, 2018.
American Cancer Society. Taste and smell changes. https://www.cancer.org/treatment/survivorship-during-and-after-treatment/staying-active/nutrition/nutrition-during-treatment/taste-smell-changes.html. Accessed July 2, 2018.
Rehwaldt M. Self-care strategies to cope with taste changes after chemotherapy. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19273394. doi: 10.1188/09.ONF. E47-E56. Accessed July 5, 2018.