Your Sense of Taste While on Chemo

by Jane Ashley

One of the big complaints among many cancer patients on chemotherapy or having radiation therapy is that food doesn’t taste the same. Some say that food tastes “funny.” Others complain that their favorite “comfort foods” don’t taste the same. 

Brush Your Teeth

Our sense of taste recognizes sweet, sour, bitter and sweet, but cancer treatment can affect our sense of taste. Common taste changes include:

• Your favorite foods taste bland.
• Sweet, salty or bitter foods taste different.
• Everything tastes the same.
• You get a metallic taste in your mouth.

Why do these treatments make our food taste different?

Chemotherapy causes taste and smell changes in about half of all patients. Head and neck cancer patients also experience changes in tastes during radiation therapy. Cancer treatments affect our taste receptors.

The lining of our mouth and our tongue contain fast-growing cells — chemotherapy attacks fast-growing cells, because cancer cells grow fast, but unfortunately, the chemo affects all fast-growing cells. This is the reason for hair loss, skin rashes and changes in our sense of taste and smell. But the good news is that these taste changes are temporary for almost everyone.

What chemotherapy drugs are most likely to cause taste changes?

No one can predict which patient will experience taste changes, but these particular chemotherapy agents are the most likely to affect your sense of taste.

• Carboplatin
• Cisplatin
• Cyclophosphamide
• Dacarbazine
• Dactinomycin
• Doxorubicin
• 5-fluorouracil
• Levamisole
• Mechlorethamine
• Methotrexate
• Paclitaxel
• Vincristine

Plastic Forks

Some other chemotherapy drugs may cause a metallic taste while the drug is being infused. These include:

• Cisplatin
• Cyclophosphamide
• Nitrogen mustard
• Vincristine

Interleukin-2 and interferons, known as biologic therapies, may also cause taste changes — particularly causing patients to be more sensitive to spicy foods.

Tips to cope with taste changes during cancer treatment

Not every tip works for everyone so the best advice is to try several and see what works best for you. It’s important to maintain good nutrition throughout your cancer treatment to minimize weight loss and get the vitamins and minerals you need.

1. Acidic foods like dill pickles or lemon juice may mask that metallic taste.
2. Brush your teeth both before and after you eat. A “fresh-tasting” mouth contributes towards your food tasting good.
3. Cold or frozen food items may be more appealing than warm or hot foods. For example, many people enjoy frozen grapes during cancer treatment. Ice cream, sherbet and milkshakes appeal to many people who have altered sense of taste. (NOTE: Patients receiving oxaliplatin should avoid cold or frozen foods due to increased cold sensitivity caused by this chemotherapy drug.)
4. Don’t drink from a can. Pour into a glass to avoid activating a metallic taste.
5. Don’t smoke. Smoking contributes to not tasting foods and suppresses your appetite.
6. Don’t eat within an hour or two of having your chemo infusion or for 3 hours afterward.
7. Don’t eat your favorite foods right after a chemo infusion. If you feel nauseated, you may develop a food aversion to your favorite food. (NOTE: To this very day, I can’t eat chicken and dumplings because that is the first meal that I ate after my first chemo.)
8. Eat appealing foods — our tastes may change during treatment, so eat what appeals to you — it might be mashed potatoes today and Mexican food tomorrow.
9. Eat mints or chew gum or suck on ice chips if you have a metallic taste during your infusion.
10. Eat chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, beans and rice, yogurt or peanut butter instead of red meat.
11. Eat in pleasant surroundings – outside in good weather, lunch at a tea room or eat in your dining room. Declutter your eating area and burn a cinnamon candle for a few minutes before eating.
12. Get rid of unpleasant household odors — use air fresheners, scented candles or reed diffusers to eliminate “those” smells that turn you off of food.
13. Ginger ale (buy a good quality one, I love Red Rock) mixed with different fruit juices stimulates our taste buds.
14. Lemon drops work wonders for many people. If the lemon flavor doesn’t work, try root beer barrels or tangerine-or-licorice-flavored hard candy.
15. Tart foods and drinks may taste really good – oranges, grapefruits and lemonade are some foods that might stimulate your taste buds. (NOTE: avoid if you have mouth sores.)
16. Sweet marinades, including fruit juice, sweet wine and balsamic vinegar, for meat may help eliminate that metallic taste.
17. Substitute a salmon burger (aka salmon patty) for a hamburger if beef triggers a metallic taste.
18. Try new or different spices that you haven’t eaten before —like turmeric , cumin , Old Bay, saffron , fennel, curry powder, ginger, Ancho chili powder, Saigon cinnamon , epazote (tastes similar to licorice) or vanilla paste. These new flavors may reawaken your taste buds.
19. Use plastic spoons and forks instead of metal utensils.

New Spices

The Bottom Line …

This, too, shall pass. It may take from weeks to months for your sense of taste to recover. Your love for some of your favorite foods may not return, but you’ll replace those old favorites with new spicier substitutes.

Related Articles 

15 Ways to Battle Metalic Taste From Chemo

12 Ways to Battle Metalic Taste From Chemo

Question: How Did You Deal With Changing Tastes While On Chemo?

When Your Taste Came Back After Chemo Was Over, Does it Seem The Same or Do Things Taste Different?

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