Coping with Taste Changes During Cancer Treatment

Understand how cancer treatment can impact your "taste" for food.

by C.H. Weaver M.D. 8/1/2018

If you’re undergoing chemotherapy, biologic therapy, or radiation to the head or neck area, one of the side effects you may experience is a change in how things taste. While this may seem like a minor side effect, it can have drastic consequences because it can cause you to lose your appetite, making it difficult to get adequate nutrition. Proper nutrition is imperative because weight loss is a common complication of cancer and its treatment and can compromise your health and well being.

Understanding Taste Changes

Taste changes are an alteration in how you perceive flavors. The four main tastes that our taste buds perceive are sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Any or all of these may be altered. For example, sour or bitter foods may taste very strong, whereas sweet foods may not taste as sweet as they used to.

The reasons for taste changes are unclear, but one thing is certain—they can be frustrating. Foods you once enjoyed may be undesirable or just plain bland. You may experience a bitter or metallic taste in your mouth. Taste changes are different for everyone and vary according to treatment.

There is no treatment for taste changes, but they usually resolve within two to three months of the completion of treatment. In the meantime, it’s important to take steps to reduce the impact of this side effect on your appetite so that you can maintain your weight.

Managing Taste Changes

There are several effective strategies for managing taste changes:

  • Maintain good oral hygiene. Brush your teeth before and after every meal and rinse your mouth with water prior to eating.
  • Avoid eating for 1-2 hours before chemotherapy and 3 hours afterward. It is common to develop a taste aversion to foods eaten during this time, so it is particularly important to avoid your favorite foods.
  • Eat small, frequent meals and healthy snacks.
  • Eat when hungry (rather than at designated mealtimes).
  • Have others prepare the meal.
  • Try substitutes for foods that don’t taste right. For example, substitute poultry, fish, eggs, and cheese for red meat.
  • Use plastic utensils if foods taste like metal.
  • Marinate meats in sweet tasting sauces.
  • Try chilled or frozen food instead of warm food.
  • Increase your fluid intake. If plain water is unappealing, try adding a lemon slice to the glass or try flavored mineral water.
  • Season foods with herbs, spices, sugar, lemon and other seasonings to enhance flavor.
  • Avoid bad odors and cigarette smoking.
  • Try tart foods, such as citrus fruits or lemonade, unless you have mouth sores.
  • Use mints, lemon drops, or chewing gum to mask bitter or metallic tastes.
  • Avoid your favorite foods to prevent the possibility of permanently spoiling your enjoyment of them.

There is no one solution for taste changes that works for everyone. It may take some trial and error to find strategies that work for you so that you can maintain your appetite and weight. Be sure to communicate with your doctor or nurse about your taste changes, especially if you have lost 5 or more pounds. It is critical that you address the problem before it worsens.