Your sense of taste and sense of smell work together to make food enjoyable or warn that it’s gone bad.

Every year, over 200,000 people seek care for taste or smell problems. They’re so interwoven that sometimes, what seems to be loss of taste is actually loss of smell. True loss of taste (ageusia) is rare.

Many things can interfere with taste, but taste usually returns when the cause is resolved.

Loss of taste can also be a sign of COVID-19. Researchers are still trying to understand how the virus affects taste and why this symptom can linger.

Read on as we explore some causes for loss of taste and how to get your taste buds back.

Depending on the cause, lack of taste may resolve on its own or by treating the cause. In the meantime, avoid the temptation to add sugar or salt. Experiment with a variety of foods, herbs, and spices.

COVID-19

About 80 percent of people who test positive for COVID-19 say taste or smell has been affected. The reasons aren’t entirely clear, but it may be related to congestion or inflammation in the nose.

Other symptoms include cough, fever, and fatigue. Difficulty breathing or chest pain signal a medical emergency.

Even with no other symptoms, loss of taste can be indicative of COVID-19, so talk to a doctor about testing or sign up for a test with a community provider. If you test positive, stay hydrated and get plenty of rest. Take over-the-counter (OTC) medicines for pain and fever.

Some people find that smell and taste return to normal as symptoms clear up. Others continue to lack smell and taste. The long-term effects of COVID-19 are still being studied, but it’s possible that loss of taste will become permanent for some.

Upper respiratory infection

Any type of infection of the upper respiratory tract can affect sense of taste. That includes the common cold and influenza, which can cause nasal congestion, coughing, and sneezing. The flu can also cause fever.

Cold and flu symptoms are treated with:

Antibiotics don’t work for viral infections like cold and flu. They can be used for bacterial infections, such as strep throat and some ear infections.

You’ll probably regain your sense of taste as the infection clears. Some viral infections can cause permanent damage to taste.

Allergies, sinus problems

Allergies and sinus infections can cause inflammation and congestion, which affects smell and taste. Sinus infections are treated with:

  • nasal rinses or sprays
  • OTC pain medications
  • antibiotics

Most people gradually regain sense of smell and taste as other symptoms improve.

Nasal polyps

Nasal polyps are soft, painless bumps that grow in nasal passages or sinuses. They’re caused by chronic inflammation associated with:

  • allergies
  • asthma
  • recurring infection
  • immune disorders
  • drug sensitivities

Aside from loss of the sense of taste and smell, symptoms can include:

  • stuffiness, runny nose
  • facial pain and pressure, upper tooth pain, headache
  • snoring
  • frequent nosebleeds

A doctor can prescribe medicines to shrink nasal polyps. They can also be surgically be removed, but polyps can recur.

Certain medications

Some medicines can alter or diminish sense of taste. These include:

  • psychotropic medications
  • bladder medications
  • antihistamines
  • antibiotics
  • cholesterol lowering medications
  • blood pressure medications

Some medicines tend to cause dry mouth, which can make it harder to taste food.

If your medicine seems to affect taste, don’t stop taking it until you speak with your doctor about alternatives. In the meantime, try to keep your mouth moist.

Cancer treatment

Chemotherapy and radiation to the head or neck can alter or weaken sense of taste. This usually clears up once you finish treatment. In the meantime, here are some other things you can try:

  • Try cold foods, which may be easier to taste than hot foods.
  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Brush your teeth before and after eating.
  • Ask your doctor to recommend products that may help with dry mouth.
  • Mints, gum, and using plastic utensils instead of metal can help with temporary metallic taste.

Alzheimer’s disease

People with dementia, including those with Alzheimer’s disease, can experience a decline in smell and taste. Other things that contribute to eating and nutritional difficulties include:

  • medications
  • trouble recognizing foods
  • difficulty going through the steps of eating a meal

Switching to different medications where possible may be helpful, but loss of taste due to dementia and aging is unlikely to be greatly improved. A licensed dietitian can help with meal planning and nutritional guidance.

Nutritional deficiencies

Certain nutritional deficiencies could minimize sense of taste. For example, zinc is vital to your senses of taste and smell. You’ll probably get enough zinc through a normal, varied diet. Zinc is found in chicken, red meat, and fortified breakfast cereals.

Women need 8 milligrams a day and men need 11 milligrams. If you think you may have a zinc deficiency, talk to a doctor about your diet and whether you should take a supplement. Don’t take supplements without first speaking to a doctor.

Dental problems

Anything that affects the mouth can certainly affect your sense of taste, such as:

If you have other dental symptoms, such as mouth pain, swelling, or a bad taste in your mouth, see a dentist. Treating the source of the problem should help restore your sense of taste. Good oral hygiene includes regular dental visits, and daily brushing and flossing.

Aging

It’s not unusual to gradually lose some sense of smell and taste as you age. It’s not normal to completely lose your sense of taste, though. Talk to a doctor about loss of taste and any other symptoms you have. Determining and treating the cause may help you get your taste back.

Chemical exposure

High exposure to certain chemicals may contribute to loss of taste. For example, high pesticide exposure can cause long-lasting impairment of the sense of smell and taste.

Head trauma

Injury to the head can cause you to lose your sense of smell and taste. How long it lasts depends on the location and extent of injury, and how it’s treated.

Other causes

Altered or lack of taste can be symptomatic of:

It’s not always the case, but symptoms may improve with treatment for the underlying condition.

Other potential causes are:

  • smoking
  • drinking alcohol
  • burning your tongue

Your taste buds may rebound if you cut back on smoking and drinking alcohol, or as your tongue heals from a burn. Quitting can be difficult, but a doctor can help create a plan that works for you.

Losing your sense of taste while nursing a cold, allergies, or flu is likely temporary. But in some cases, it could be a sign of a serious condition. Long-term, it can lead to under- or overeating, malnutrition, and poorer quality of life.

See a doctor if loss of taste goes well beyond a recent bout of congestion or illness, has come on suddenly, or is accompanied by other symptoms.

If needed, a doctor can refer you to an otolaryngologist, also known as an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist for evaluation.

Warning

Even if you have no other symptoms, losing your sense of taste could be a sign of COVID-19. If you think this is a possibility, it’s important to immediately self-isolate. Do not go to your doctor’s office, as this could expose other people. Call to arrange a virtual visit or COVID-19 testing.

Call 911 if you have:

  • trouble breathing
  • persistent chest pain or pressure
  • confusion
  • inability to wake or stay awake
  • bluish lips or face

Tell doctors and emergency responders in advance that you may have COVID-19 so they can take proper precautions.

Diagnosis will start with a discussion of your symptoms, medical history, and physical examination of your ears, nose, and throat. An ENT doctor may ask you to taste and compare a variety of things to measure the extent of your taste problems.

This will help determine the cause or the next steps toward diagnosis.

Sense of taste is strongly connected to sense of smell. You need both to fully taste food.

Many things can interfere with taste, including allergies, colds, and influenza. Normal taste usually returns as other symptoms clear up.

If you have lingering loss of taste, with or without other symptoms, see a doctor. It could be a sign of an underlying condition. Losing one’s sense of taste is also associated with COVID-19.

Treating the cause can often help get your taste buds back on track.