One of the joys of eating is being able to taste the sweet, sour, salty and bitter flavors of food. But taste isn’t a sense to be taken for granted. Savor every morsel for taste can be lost during short-term illness or permanently lost because of more serious health conditions.
How can your sense of taste disappear?
The most common causes for why you can’t taste food are age-related or from conditions like a cold or stuffy nose.
Dr. Timothy Boyle, a Marshfield Clinic otolaryngologist, says the special sense organs in your nose and mouth, are complicated.
“Flavor is a combination of taste and smell,” he said. “People think it revolves around their taste buds, but it is a lot more than that.”
As you age, you gradually lose your senses of taste and smell. For young people, taste can disappear because of a health condition like a common cold or medication side effect, and it can happen immediately.
Dr. Boyle says it’s the sense of smell that has the biggest effect on the sense of taste.
“When you breathe air in, it has an odor,” he said. “Those odorants have to dissolve into the moist lining of the nose. Within that lining are microscopic nerves that detect smell. Anything that affects that pathway affects smell, which directly affects your experience of flavor.”
Some diseases and therapies can affect taste
Alzheimer’s disease and some neurological conditions are associated with decreased taste. Another disease, Sjogren’s syndrome, which is an autoimmune disorder that causes the body to attack the saliva and tear glands, will alter taste in many patients.
Medications that dry out secretions will lessen the ability to dissolve molecules that produce flavor in food. Medications like some psychiatric medications, chemotherapy, bladder medications and antihistamines also affect taste. Smoking, nutritional deficiencies and therapies like radiation to the head and neck can affect your sense of taste.
Radiation treatments can profoundly alter the sense of taste, and many patients change what they eat because of it.
How to get your taste back
Dr. Boyle says about half of people who think they can’t taste anything actually can.
“Many times we have to objectively test them in the office,” Dr. Boyle said. “We find that a substantial proportion of patients can smell and taste. It may just be diminished.”
Some people have detected “phantom” smells or tastes. They either smell rotten socks or have a metallic taste in their mouth. It’s not clear why these sensations occur.
In general, not much can be done to get the sense of taste to return. One suggestion from Dr. Boyle is to look in the spice cabinet.
“How old are your spices?” Dr. Boyle said. “If they are 35 years old, try to get those old ones used up and get new ones. Using more or fresher spices can be a quick fix to get some flavor back in food.”
Stay hydrated. Taste may return if you get moisture back into your mouth and avoid medications that cause these types of problems. Artificial saliva products also can help in some cases.
Sometimes waiting for a cold to go away will help get taste to return. However, some viral infections can permanently damage the taste nerves.
If you are having trouble with taste, it usually is not due to a severe illness. Regardless, discuss any concerns with your physician.