Taste Disorders

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Overview

Problems with the sense of taste can have a big impact on life. Taste stimulates the desire to eat and therefore plays a key role in nutrition. The sense of taste also helps keep us healthy by helping us detect spoiled food or drinks.

Scientists have established that there are five distinct flavors that contribute to our sense of taste: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory.

These flavors, plus the sensations of heat, coolness, and texture combine inside the mouth to give us a sense of taste. The sense of smell also adds to the perception of taste. In fact, the senses of taste and smell are so closely related that most people who go to the doctor thinking they have lost their sense of taste are surprised to discover that they have lost their sense of smell.

Losing your sense of taste can even affect your health. Here’s how: When taste is impaired, you might change your eating habits by adding too much sugar or salt to your food to try to make it taste better. You may also eat too much or too little.

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Causes

Some people are born with taste disorders, but most develop them after an injury or illness. Among the causes of taste problems are:

  • Upper respiratory and middle ear infections
  • Radiation therapy for cancers of the head and neck
  • Exposure to chemicals such as insecticides, and some medications, including antibiotics and antihistamines
  • Head injury
  • Surgery to the ear, nose, and throat (such as middle ear surgery) or extraction of the third molar (wisdom tooth)
  • Poor oral hygiene and dental problems.
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Symptoms

Taste disorders include:

  • Dysgeusia [dis-GYOO-zee-a], a condition in which a foul, salty, rancid, or metallic taste persists in your mouth. Dysgeusia is sometimes accompanied by Burning Mouth Syndrome, which is characterized by a painful burning sensation in your mouth.
  • Hypogeusia [hy-po-GYOO-zee-a], in which your ability to taste is reduced.
  • Ageusia [ah-GYOO-zee-a], in which you’re unable to taste anything.
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Diagnosis

Taste disorders are diagnosed by an otolaryngologist (sometimes called an ENT – ear, nose, and throat – doctor). An otolaryngologist determines how severe your taste disorder is by using a special taste test that measures the lowest concentration of a taste quality you can detect and recognize. You may be asked to sip a substance, spit it out and then describe the taste. Another type of taste test uses chemicals applied directly to the tongue. You also may be asked to compare the tastes of different substances, or discern the differences between different concentrations of taste qualities. Your doctor will also examine your ears, nose, and throat, and ask about your medical history and oral hygiene habits.

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Treatment

Treatment will depend upon what is causing your taste disorder. If a medication is the cause, your doctor will ask you to stop taking the medication or change to a comparable one that does not affect your sense of taste as much.

If a medical condition is the cause, your doctor will treat the condition or refer you to another doctor who can. Often, treating the medical problem will eliminate the taste disorder. For example, if you’ve lost your sense of taste because of respiratory infections or allergies, you should regain your taste when those conditions resolve.

Some people with a taste disorder will get their taste back spontaneously, without any treatment.

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Helpful Tips

If you lose some or all of your sense of taste, here are things you can try to make your food taste better:

  • Prepare foods with a variety of colors and textures.
  • Use aromatic herbs and spices to add more flavor.
  • Work with your doctor or with a nutritionist to identify condiments that you can add to your diet to improve the taste of your food.
  • Avoid dishes that combine different foods, such as casseroles, which can hide individual flavors and dilute taste.
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Additional Resources

  • Taste Disorders

    A fact sheet from the NIH National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. It answers questions such as What causes taste disorders? How are taste disorders diagnosed? and Can taste disorders be treated?

  • MedlinePlus: Taste and Smell Disorders

    The NIH National Library of Medicine's collection of links to government, professional and non-profit/voluntary organizations with information on taste and smell disorders.

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Last Reviewed on
February 2018