Changes in taste or smell

Some treatments and their side effects can change the way some foods taste or smell. Chemotherapy can change the taste receptors in the mouth. Radiation therapy or surgery to the head, neck and mouth area can damage the salivary glands and tastebuds on the tongue. Food may taste bitter or metallic, or may not have as much flavour as before.

It’s common to have taste changes 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”. If you lose most or all of your sense of taste, focus on other appealing aspects of food, such as the colours and presentation of the meal. You could try experimenting with different textures and temperatures to make food more enjoyable (e.g. hot apple pie with cold ice-cream). It may take several months for taste to return to normal. In some cases, taste changes may be permanent.

If you have a sore mouth, sore throat or swallowing difficulties, talk to your doctor, speech pathologist, dentist or dietitian – some of the suggestions below will not be suitable.

For more on this, see Taste and smell changes.

  — Helen

How to manage changes in taste or smell

Taste changes

Smell changes

  • Add extra flavour to food if it tastes bland (e.g. fresh herbs, lemon, lime, ginger, garlic, soy sauce, honey, chilli, pepper, Worcestershire sauce or pickles). Check out these ideas for tasty marinades.
  • Experiment with different foods, as your tastes may change. You may not like bitter drinks (e.g. tea, coffee, beer, wine) or sweet food (e.g. chocolate), even if you liked them before treatment. It is common to prefer savoury food.
  • If meat tastes unpleasant during treatment, replace it with other protein sources (e.g. cheese, eggs, nuts, dairy foods, seafood, baked beans, lentils, chickpeas).
  • Add small amounts of sugar to food if it tastes bitter or salty.
  • Use bamboo or plastic cutlery if metal cutlery adds a metallic taste.
  • Drink through a straw so the taste isn’t as strong. Metal straws may add a metallic taste so paper or plastic straws may be better.
  • Choose cold food or food at room temperature – hot food smells stronger.
  • Try not to eat your favourite foods during chemotherapy. Some people find afterwards that they cannot tolerate the smell of foods associated with their treatment.
  • Avoid using large amounts of strong-smelling ingredients (e.g. garlic, onion).
  • If cooking smells bother you, ask family or friends to cook and stay out of the kitchen when food is being prepared.
  • Turn on the exhaust fan, open a window and cover pots with lids to help reduce cooking smells, or cook outside on the barbecue.
  • Avoid eating in stuffy or overly warm rooms.
  • Practise good mouth care, as a bad taste in the mouth can make things smell unpleasant.

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This information was last reviewed in June 2019
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