Tips for Taste Changes with Cancer Treatment

 Taste Changes are Common During Cancer Treatment

Taste Changes are Common During Cancer Treatment

Do foods taste differently? Do they taste bland or does everything taste the same? You might even notice metallic or odd chemical tastes…even after eating something that should leave a nice taste in your mouth!

This can lead to problems including poor appetite, weight loss, and even food avoidance.

It can make it difficult for people to eat healthily.

The sense of taste is intimately linked with the sense of smell and together these senses allow us to perceive flavour. For example, these senses are typically affected when we suffer a bout of the flu. This is also an unfortunate but expected side effect of cancer treatment.
— Sinead Francis, Speech & Language Therapist, Strive Clinic Galway
 Sinead Francis, Speech & Language Therapist, Strive Clinic Galway

Sinead Francis, Speech & Language Therapist, Strive Clinic Galway

More than half of people receiving Chemotherapy experience taste changes; these changes usually stop 3-4 weeks after treatment has stopped. 

Radiation therapy (to the head and neck) can damage both taste buds and salivary glands. This causes changes not only to taste, but also to your sense of smell, which also affects how foods taste. Taste changes caused by radiation usually improve 3 weeks to 2 months after treatment ends but this could continue for up to 1 year. However, if salivary glands are damaged, sense of taste may not return entirely back to normal.

Other causes of taste changes include surgery to nose/throat/mouth; biological therapies; dry mouth (xerostomia); damage to the nerves involved in tasting; mouth infections (e.g. thrush); dental/gum problems; and nausea and vomiting.

Dysgeusia is the term that describes changes to taste. This condition not only affects the quality of life of patients undergoing chemotherapy, but also has the potential to prolong morbidity and decrease response to therapy.

It's so important to have a conversation about what to expect before the initiation of treatment. This will allow you, the patient, to prepare for the psychological and physical manifestations of taste alteration. Stress of the patient may be further alleviated to know that taste change is a transient condition lasting approximately 3 months after completion of chemotherapy.

Some opioid medicines (like morphine) can cause taste changes, as well as some antibiotics.

No universal or consistent pharmacologic agents have been shown to decrease dysgeusia (taste changes) and no evidence-based guidelines have been developed for its management. However, food preparation techniques have been proven helpful in improving taste alterations for the better. Practical tips to manage taste changes need to be tried and tested – some you’ll live by and others might not make as big a difference!


Managing Taste Problems:

Sometimes treating the cause of the changes can help – there are no specific ‘treatments’. So if we treat things like mouth infections or dry mouth, this can improve the situation.

Tips and Ideas:

  • Try cold or frozen foods or snacks – they might appeal more than hot foods particularly if you are sensitive to smell (e.g. frozen fruits like melon balls, grapes, or oranges)
  • If you experience a metallic taste, use plastic utensils and glass cookware instead of silverware/pans
  • Marinate meats in sweet juices, sweet wines, salad dressings or other sauces. Cold meats may taste better served with pickle or chutney.
  • If meals taste bland, add extra flavour foods by using herbs, spices, sugar, lemon, or sauces
  • If you experience a 'bad taste', try rinsing your mouth with salt and baking soda solution before meals. Try ½ teaspoon salt with ½ teaspoon baking soda in a cup of warm water. This can help neutralise bad tastes in the mouth
  • Chewing on sugar free gum or hard sweets (mint/citrus flavours) may also help to freshen your mouth
  • If red meats are difficult to eat, try other sources of protein such as poultry, fish, eggs, peanut butter, beans, dairy products. Marinating meats in sweet juices, sweet wines, salad dressings or other sauces may help improve taste. You could also try to serve cold meat with a pickle or chutney.
  • Oral hygiene is important. Keep a clean healthy mouth by regularly rinsing and brushing frequently with a soft toothbrush
  • Drink more water with meals to help with swallowing or rinse away bad taste. If you find water difficult to drink try flavouring with no added sugar squash, mint, lemon and limes or cucumber may help.
  • If taste changes are affecting your appetite try to choose a ‘little and often’ approach; choosing smaller meals more frequently. 
  • Focus on the foods you enjoy and remember if you are avoiding certain foods because they no longer appeal to you make sure to try them some days or weeks later as taste change is usually temporary.

To schedule an appointment with Sinead Francis, Speech & Language Therapist or Joanne McCarron, Oncology Dietitian in Strive Clinic Galway, you can call 091 393 180 or email