Taste Changes During Cancer Therapy

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: February 10, 2020

People who are going through cancer treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation therapy, often report changes in taste. These changes can include food and drinks tasting bitter or like metal, being “put off” by certain foods, or a change in the taste of your favorite foods.

Radiation therapy to the head and neck area can damage your taste buds and sense of smell. It can cause xerostomia (dry mouth caused by a decrease in or loss of saliva), which can make taste changes worse and can cause a loss of interest in eating. Dental problems can also add to taste changes, so a visit to the dentist may be in order. Be sure to check with your oncology team to find the best time during therapy to see a dentist. Mucositis (mouth sores) can also cause changes in taste.

Taste changes can impact your enjoyment of eating or drinking. In turn, you may not eat or drink enough for proper nutrition. Although the problem with taste changes often gets better over time after therapy ends, it can last for a year or longer. There are some things you can do to help manage taste changes and, in the process, decrease or prevent weight loss.

Taste changes can impact your enjoyment of eating or drinking. In turn, you may not eat or drink enough for proper nutrition. Although the problem with taste changes typically resolves over time after therapy ends, it can persist for a year or longer. There are some things you can do to help manage taste changes and, in the process, decrease or prevent weight loss.

  • Rinse your mouth before meals with saltwater, sparkling water or ginger ale, or brush your teeth.
  • Avoid cigarette or cigar smoking, as this can make taste changes worse.
  • Try making the flavors of your food more powerful with the addition of spices, herbs, marinades, lemon juice, sauces or pickled foods.
  • Choose foods with strong flavors, like lemon for instance (lemon meringue, a lemon marinade, etc.).
  • Avoid any acidic additives if you have mouth sores. While it seems logical that spicy foods should be avoided with mouth sores, research has found that capsaicin (which is derived from chili peppers) can be used to treat pain from mouth sores, so it may be helpful for some.
  • Try to overpower a metallic taste with lemon drops, sugar-free hard candy, mints or gum. For those dealing with xerostomia, these can also help stimulate saliva.
  • If a metallic taste is your concern, use plastic utensils and drink beverages from bottles, not cans.
  • Beef is particularly prone to tasting metallic, so you may want to replace it with other forms of protein like chicken, eggs or dairy products.
  • Consult with the cancer center dietitian for help with food options.

Taste changes can make you lose interest in eating. Some ways that you can increase your desire or ability to eat enough for proper nutrition include:

  • Eat small, frequent meals throughout the day. Have "snacks" on hand for when you feel hungry.
  • Make mealtime a social and enjoyable experience. Invite your visitors to come at mealtime and eat with you.
  • Eat foods that you enjoy. Milkshakes, puddings, sauces, and gravies can provide extra calories or lubrication to assist in eating.
  • Attractive presentation of foods can increase your appetite. Try meals that include bright colored foods at a set table to appeal to your other senses.

If you are having a hard time eating or drinking due to taste changes, let your care team know so that they can help you make changes that will help. 

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