If you’re having treatment for cancer, it’s very common to experience a bad taste in your mouth. In this post we look at why cancer treatment causes changes to your sense of taste, together with some tips for helping to deal with the changes.
Changes to your taste, or dysgeusia, are commonly caused by treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, as well as some other cancer treatments. Many people experience an unpleasant metallic or chemical taste in their mouth, which can make it difficult to eat well. However, steps can be taken to help lessen the effects.
Why does cancer treatment affect your taste?
The cells in our mouths and throats change very quickly, which means they are easily affected by some cancer treatments. Certain treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, are well known for affecting the sense of taste.
This can be for a number of reasons, including damage caused to the cells of the mouth and the nerves involved in tasting, or sometimes due to the specific chemicals used in treatment.
Other cancer treatments, such as biological therapies, opioid pain relief treatments (like morphine), antibiotics, and surgery to the mouth area, can also affect your taste.
A sore or infected mouth is another common side effect of cancer treatment, which can lead to sores, ulcers, swelling and pain in the mouth area (‘mucositis’), and a bad taste in the mouth.
How does chemotherapy affect your taste?
Chemotherapy is known for causing a bitter, metallic or chemical taste in the mouth (or ‘chemo mouth’), with around half of people treated reporting taste changes.
Some chemotherapy drugs are thought to damage the delicate cells in the lining of the mouth, while others can change the balance of bacteria in the mouth, leading to taste changes. Meanwhile, certain chemotherapy treatments are specifically known to cause a metallic taste – you can talk to your medical team to find out whether your particular chemo treatment is likely to have this side effect.
It’s important to remember that taste changes caused by chemotherapy usually wear off around 3-6 weeks after your treatment has stopped.
How does radiotherapy affect your taste?
If you are having radiation therapy to the neck and head area, for example for a tumour in or close to your mouth, this can cause damage to the taste buds and salivary glands, resulting in changes to your taste and smell.
Changes to taste caused by radiotherapy will normally begin to improve around 1-2 months following treatment. However, sometimes people find that their sense of taste is not quite the same as before, particularly if the salivary glands are damaged.
How can I manage the bad taste in my mouth?
The changes caused by some cancer treatments can affect the way food tastes and smells, which can make it difficult to eat healthily. However, it’s important to support your body in its recovery by eating well. If you have a metallic or bitter taste in your mouth, there are a number of things you can do to help:
1) Avoid using metal cutlery – Using metal cutlery is known to make the symptoms worse. It can help to use alternative materials, such as plastic or ceramic. The Live Better With community recommend bamboo cutlery, which has no aftertaste and can help to neutralise the metallic taste, as well as having natural antibacterial properties.
“The cutlery is well made and durable. Most importantly, it did help to rid me of the metallic taste I had.” Paul, Live Better With community member.
Preparing food using glass or ceramic cookware rather than metal pots and pans, and storing food in glass containers, can also help to reduce bad tastes.
2) Practise good oral hygiene – Keeping your teeth and gums clean and healthy will help reduce the risk of mouth issues and infections. Using a mild toothpaste and a medicated mouthwash can help, while applying a protective gel to any sore areas as soon as they appear will help to soothe and heal your mouth.
3) Use sauces and marinades – Herbs and spices, citrus juices and sauces can all help to stimulate the taste buds and cover up metallic or chalky tastes.
Some people find that red meat in particular can take on a metallic taste when they’re undergoing cancer treatment. You can help to mask any bad tastes by soaking the meat in a marinade first. Alternatively look for other sources of protein if you’re affected, such as chicken, fish, eggs, beans or nuts.
4) Suck on hard-boiled sweets – Many people find that sucking on strong mints or hard-boiled sweets flavoured with mint, lemon or orange can help to disguise unwanted bitter or metallic tastes.
“I never had a sore mouth but an unpleasant metallic taste would come from time to time and strong mints really helped with masking it.” Live Better With community member.
5) Add sweetener or sugar – If you find that foods taste bitter, adding sugar or sweetener can help to dilute them and can also help to stimulate the taste buds.
6) Try using ginger – The Live Better With community recommend using ginger chews, which offer a naturally spicy way to help reduce the metallic taste in your mouth, while also minimising any feelings of nausea.
7) Experiment with new tastes – If you have issues with taste, it can be advisable to avoid your favourite foods for a while, as you may begin to associate them with feeling unwell.
Now is a good time to try out some new flavours and find out what appeals to you. The Live Better With community recommend using a specialist cancer cookbook, for a range of healthy and nutritious recipe ideas.
Having treatment for cancer can cause some unwelcome changes to your sense of taste and smell. However, it’s important to remember that the symptoms will normally start to fade after treatment, and there are lots of things you can do to help minimise the effects in the meantime.
Do you have any tips for dealing with taste issues? If so, why not share them on the Live Better With Cancer Community Forum.