Appetite and taste changes

A change in taste and smell is a common side effect during or following cancer treatment.

What are appetite and taste changes?

A change in taste and smell is a common side effect during or following cancer treatment. These changes can impact your appetite and as a consequence your food intake. Normal taste and smell usually returns two to three months after your treatment finishes.

What causes these changes?

Changes to your taste and smell are often associated with:

  • Radiation therapy to the head and neck
  • Certain chemotherapy drugs, particularly platinum-based compounds (e.g. carboplatin and oxaliplatin)
  • Stem cell transplantation which includes high dose chemotherapy +/- total body irradiation
  • Administration of medications which alter taste or smell
  • Poor oral hygiene
  • Current infection of the mouth
  • Dry mouth
  • Dentures
  • Advancing age
  • Smoking

Signs and symptoms of appetite and taste changes

Taste and smell changes may occur within hours of treatment and can include:

  • Reduced or lack of ability to taste sweet, sour, bitter or salty substances
  • Increased taste sensitivity
  • Altered taste sensations, usually a metallic taste
  • Increased sensitivity to smells
  • A change to your eating patterns, including reduced food intake

How can appetite and taste changes be prevented/managed?

Good nutrition, or giving your body the food it needs to keep working properly, can help you cope better with the effects of cancer and treatments. It can give you more energy, make you feel less tired and maintain your wellbeing. There are a number of things you can do to help reduce the impact of appetite and taste changes:

  • Perform good oral hygiene before and after meals
  • Use plastic utensils if food tastes metallic
  • Experiment with alternative foods and tastes – add herbs, spices and flavourings to foods to enhance taste, marinate meats in sweet juices, chew gum or suck lollies to disguise metallic taste, eat more savoury based foods such as cheese and biscuits, soups, scrambled eggs
  • Drink more water with meals
  • Avoid smells that exacerbate nausea and vomiting
  • Try small, frequent, high protein, high energy meals
  • Rinse your mouth several times a day with a mild mouth rinse (half teaspoon of salt to one glass of water (200ml) water or one teaspoon of sodium bicarbonate (baking soda) to one glass (200ml) water)
  • Consider strategies to help you quit smoking
  • Talk to a dietitian who can support you to manage your diet

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