Around 80% of people undergoing cancer treatment report changes in the flavour of food. This has the potential to affect how they enjoy food and can lead to a less nutritious diet.
Flavour is experienced via three senses – taste, smell and touch (how food feels in your mouth), and these can change as a result of cancer treatment.
It is common for food to taste or smell different during cancer treatment.
We experience taste when food or drink, mixed with saliva, reaches tastebuds all over the tongue and inside the mouth. The tastebuds will detect the five basic tastes of sweet, sour, bitter, salty and savoury (also known as umami). These building blocks of flavour combine with sense and touch, giving rise to many flavours.
Smell is experienced when odour particles are detected in the air and then enter the nose through the mouth or nostrils. When we chew and swallow food, odours can be released that travel through the back of the mouth and into the nasal passage.
It’s common to have changes in taste during treatment and for a short time afterwards. People with cancer often say, “All food tastes the same”, “Food tastes like cardboard”, “Food tastes metallic”, or “I no longer like the taste of my favourite food”. It may take several months for your sense of taste to return to normal. In some cases, taste changes may be permanent.
Some people find that even the taste of water is a problem. This can make it challenging to get through the recommended amount of water each day and to swallow medicines with water. Adding lemon, lime, fruit juice, cordial or fresh mint to water may make it easier to drink.
What causes changes to taste and smell?
Certain cancer treatments can change your senses of taste and smell, including:
- radiation therapy to the head and neck
- surgery to the nose, throat or mouth
- targeted therapy
These changes can be more noticeable if you are having radiation treatment to the head and neck area, or a combination of radiation therapy and chemotherapy. Usually, the changes start during treatment and last for a short time after it finishes. They can last longer for some people.
Why are these changes important?
Taste and smell are closely linked to food enjoyment. During cancer treatment, food that you usually like may not taste the same.
You might find things don’t smell like they used to, some foods may have a strong smell
you don’t like certain flavours, sweet foods (e.g. chocolate) may taste too sweet, some foods may taste too salty. A constant bitter or metallic taste in your mouth (this can be caused by some chemotherapy). These changes can affect your appetite, and you might lose weight or choose less healthy food and drinks.
It’s important that you eat properly and don’t lose weight during treatment. If you are struggling to eat and drink, notice unexplained weight loss, notice changes in taste or have concerns about your diet and nutrition, talk to your treating team or Bloomhill nurse who can advise on the next steps. A referral to a Dietician should be considered during treatment. A Dietician can work out a safe individualised nutrition plan.
Tips to help with taste and smell changes
- Rinse your mouth before and after eating.
- Try foods and drinks you usually don’t like.
- Eat when you are hungry and snack on healthy options.
- If you have a bad taste in your mouth that doesn’t go away, try sucking on sugar-free lollies or mints.
If the Food tastes bland
- Use seasonings such as fresh herbs, lemon, garlic and sauces to give food a stronger flavour.
If Foods have Strong flavours that are overpowering
- Cut down on spices, fizzy drinks, mints or chewing gum.
- Choose foods with less strong flavours instead.
- Have food at room temperature, which can change the flavour.
You have a metallic taste in the mouth
- Use regular mouth rinses.
- Add a small amount of sugar or salt to your food.
- Eat oranges or lemons and pickled foods (unless you have a sore mouth).
- Add vinegar to foods or dressings (unless you have a sore mouth).
- Use plastic knives, forks and spoons.
The smell of food makes you sick
- Try eating plainer, cold or room temperature foods.
- Ask someone else to prepare your food if you can.
- Use an exhaust fan or open windows when cooking.
- Clean your mouth and rinse mouth with saltwater regularly.
How long will changes to taste and smell last?
Most changes to your sense of taste and smell will resolve with time and are rarely permanent. Studies have shown that if you only have chemotherapy, your enjoyment of food usually returns about two months after treatment. If you have radiation therapy to the head or neck, you may experience longer lasting effects.
Please contact our Nurses on 07 5445 5794 or email@example.com if you have any questions.
The information in this document is based on resources from the Cancer Council Queensland. All information provided by Bloomhill is based on research and best practice guidelines. Our model of care utilizes the Clinical Oncology Society of Australia (COSA) domains of wellness along with available clinical evidence. Always consult your care team regarding matters that affect your health. This is a guide intended for information only.