Taste Changes During Chemotherapy

What to do when food loses its flavor

Just when you think that your appetite is back and you are able to hold down solid foods after the first few sessions of chemotherapy, you may be faced with another side effect of treatment: taste changes. Suddenly, foods lack flavor and taste bland.

Know that you are not alone. Almost 50 percent of people undergoing cancer treatment experience taste changes. It's not exclusive to those undergoing chemo; people undergoing radiation therapy to the head and neck may also experience taste changes like loss of the ability to taste.

Loss of taste is just one of a handful of ways that chemotherapy can affect your sense of taste. For some people, food can taste metallic, bitter, or even too sweet.

The cause is not fully known, but chemotherapy damages cells in the mouth and that very likely includes the taste buds on your tongue, which detect sweet, salt, sour and bitter.

how to cope with taste changes during chemo

Verywell / Laura Porter

Lack of Food Flavor Can Lead to Nutritional Deficiencies

Eating can be a challenge when undergoing chemotherapy. Perhaps you don't have an appetite or can't keep anything down, or food tastes different. You cannot allow these taste aversions and changes to prevent you from getting proper nutrition. Maintaining good nutrition is an important factor in your treatment success. Always be sure to inform your healthcare provider of any side effects you are experiencing, including taste changes.

When food has no flavor, it can be mentally difficult to chew and swallow. After a few days, it may feel impossible to not focus on the consistency or texture of foods, which you may find repulsive without flavor. This can lead to an aversion to certain foods or eating altogether, which can ultimately result in weight loss and malnutrition.

What's a patient to do? There are several ways of trying to increase the flavor of food or finding foods that may be more sensitive to your unresponsive palate. Throughout the course of millions of people undergoing chemo, some creative tactics have come about.

What To Do When Food Has No Flavor During Chemotherapy

Spices and herbs are a great way to add flavor to foods if you are experiencing loss of taste. Experiment with different spices and herbs in marinades and spice rubs for meats. Marinades and rubs are a great way to incorporate flavor into food. Don't forget sauces like barbecue sauce, teriyaki, and even ketchup to add a little flavor to your meal.

Citrus fruits are great to eat on their own and also to use in cooking. Be careful if you have mouth sores, however. Citrus fruits and other acidic foods can aggravate them. If you do not suffer from mouth sores, try eating citrus fruits or drinking citrus fruit juices.

Will Your Taste Buds Ever Return to Normal?

Rest assured that most people's taste buds do regain function. The taste buds are cells with a rapid turnover rate of 10 days. Most people regain function three to four weeks after the end of chemotherapy treatment and almost all do after three months. Some people find that their taste buds are hypersensitive at first, while others less sensitive. For the most part, you can expect your ability to taste food to return after treatment.

1 Source
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  1. Institute for Quality and Efficiency in Health Care (IQWiG). How does chemotherapy work?. InformedHealth.org [Internet]. 2012 Feb 9. 

Additional Reading
  • Steinbach, S., Hummel, T., Bohner, C., Berktold, S., Hundt, W., Kriner, M., Harbeck, N. (2009). Qualitative and quantitative assessment of taste and smell changes in patients undergoing chemotherapy for breast or gynecologic malignancies. Journal of Clinical Oncology, 27, 1899-1905. doi: 10.1200/JCO.2008.19.2690