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Taste Changes

Change in the sense of taste (dysgeusia) causes changes in how food tastes during or after cancer treatment. Some foods may taste different than they used to, some foods may not have much taste at all, or everything may taste the same. Bitter, sweet, and salty foods may taste different than they did before, and some people with cancer have a metallic or chemical taste in their mouth, especially after eating meat or other high-protein foods. Taste changes can lead to food aversions (or dislikes), loss of appetite, and weight loss.

Taste changes are a common side effect of chemotherapy. About half of people receiving chemotherapy have taste changes. Types of chemotherapy commonly associated with taste changes include cisplatin (Platinol), cyclophosphamide (Cytoxan, Clafen, Neosar), doxorubicin (Adriamycin), fluorouracil (5-FU), and paclitaxel (Taxol). Taste changes caused by chemotherapy usually clear up about three to four weeks after the end of treatment. Some other medications, including some opioid (strong) painkillers and antibiotics, can also cause taste changes.
Radiation treatment to the neck and head can cause taste changes because of damage to the taste buds. Radiation therapy can also cause changes to the sense of smell. Since smell and taste are closely linked, changes to the sense of smell can affect how foods taste. Taste changes caused by radiation treatment usually begin to improve from three weeks to two months after the end of treatment. Improvement may continue for about a year, but the sense of taste may not entirely return to the way it was before treatment.
Other causes of taste changes include surgery to the nose, throat, or mouth; biological therapies ; dry mouth; damage to the nerves involved in tasting; mouth infections; dental or gum problems; and nausea and vomiting.

There are no specific treatments for taste problems. Talk about any changes in taste with your doctor. Treatment from a dentist will help improve taste changes caused by mouth infections, dry mouth, or dental or gum problems. The following tips can help people who are experiencing taste changes. Depending on the cause of taste changes, different tips may work better for some people than for others.
  • Choose foods that smell and taste good, even if the food is unfamiliar.
  • Eliminate cooking smells by using an exhaust fan, cooking on an outdoor grill, or buying precooked foods. Cold or room-temperature foods also have less of an aroma.
  • Cold or frozen food may taste better than hot foods.
  • Try using plastic utensils and glass cookware to lessen a metallic taste.
  • Try sugar-free, mint gum or hard candies (such as mint, lemon, or orange) to mask a bitter or metallic taste in the mouth.
  • If red meats don't taste good, try other protein sources such as poultry, eggs, fish, peanut butter, beans, or dairy products.
  • Try marinating meats in fruit juices, sweet wines, salad dressings, or other sauces.
  • Flavor foods with herbs, spices, sugar, lemon, or sauces.
  • To avoid food aversions caused by nausea and vomiting after chemotherapy, do not eat one to two hours before and up to three hours after chemotherapy. In addition, avoiding favorite foods just before chemotherapy helps prevent aversions to those foods.
  • Rinsing with a salt and baking soda solution before meals may help neutralize bad tastes in the mouth (½ teaspoon of salt and ½ teaspoon of baking soda in 1 cup of warm water).
  • Keep a clean and healthy mouth by brushing frequently and flossing daily.
  • Zinc sulfate supplements may help improve taste in some people.
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