There are many factors that can change your ability to taste food, but even so, if things are losing their flavor it's actually more likely that you are losing your sense of smell. Our sense of smell is closely tied in with our ability to taste and you may not realize it but you're actually smelling your food as well as just tasting it. Both senses are controlled by the cranial nerves so damage to these nerves via an injury or stroke can cause you to lose your sense of taste or smell, other conditions that can diminish or change the flavor of your food include:
- some medications
- age - your sense of taste usually declines past the age of 60
- infections like strep throat
- sinus problems or nasal polyps
- exposure to harmful chemicals
- dental problems - ill-fitting dentures which cause sores, infections, inflammation
- radiation to the head or neck
- brain tumors (rare)
- Sjogren's syndrome
- Bell's palsy
- hormone imbalances
- Parkinson's disease
- Alzheimer's disease
- traumatic brain injury
- vitamin deficiency (rare)
Our senses of smell and taste are important for our nutritional status and individuals who lose these senses often lose weight. Our sense of smell can also warn us of danger - smoke from a fire, chemicals, a natural gas leak. Diagnosing problems with taste or smell is generally uncomplicated. You should see an otolaryngologist (ENT). This doctor, who specializes in disorders of the ear, nose and mouth, will probably have you try to identify certain chemical odors using a standard "scratch and sniff" test, and/or flavors (a taste test).
Can Taste Loss Be Treated?
Sometimes losing your sense of taste (or smell) is only temporary but sometimes it is permanent. For example, nasal polyps can be removed surgically but lost cells due to the normal aging process cannot be replaced (yet). If you have an infection, such as strep throat, your sense of taste should return when your illness resolves. It is rare but chronic infections or particularly severe infections (like those which lead to Bell's palsy) can cause a permanent loss of taste and smell. Allergies can be treated with antihistamines. If you have lost your sense of taste or smell from a stroke or head injury it is probably permanent. If you are taking medications that cause dry mouth they can affect the way you taste food. This is because saliva contains important chemical messengers that are necessary for the brain to interpret tastes. In this case you can talk to your doctor about changing to another medication or ways to cope with dry mouth, such as chewing sugar free gum and drinking a lot of water. Blood pressure medications and antibiotics are also known to affect your sense of taste. Damage to the cells that make up the taste buds (gustatory cells) from prolonged chemical exposure or radiation is permanent but researchers are exploring ways to replace the gustatory cells. Quitting smoking can improve your ability to taste and smell.
Some people are born with a diminished sense of smell. Studies show that your sense of smell is the strongest between the ages of 30-60 and that women can more accurately identify odors than men. Some studies suggest that in addition to eating less, people who lose these senses tend to socialize less, suggesting that these senses add significantly to our lives.
American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery. Smell and Taste. Accessed: December 25, 2011 from http://www.entnet.org/HealthInformation/smellTaste.cfm
FamilyDoctor.org. Sensory Dysfunction. Accessed: December 26, 2011 from http://familydoctor.org/familydoctor/en/diseases-conditions/sensory-dysfunction.printerview.all.html
NIH Senior Health. Problems with Taste. Accessed: December 26, 2021 from http://nihseniorhealth.gov/problemswithtaste/toc.html