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

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

Many conditions can interfere with taste, but it usually returns when the cause is resolved. Loss of taste can be a sign of COVID-19 or another viral infection. Sometimes it lingers even after the infection has passed.

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 extra sugar or salt to your food. Experiment with a variety of foods, herbs, and spices.

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

Change or loss of taste is commonly reported by people with COVID-19.

In an April 2021 study, researchers found that in a group of 200 people with mild to moderate COVID-19:

  • 7 percent lost their sense of taste (but not smell)
  • 4 percent lost their sense of smell and taste
  • 4.5 percent lost their sense of smell (but not taste)

Everybody who lost their taste regained it within 14 days. People who lost their sense of smell regained it within 21 days except for two people, who developed long-term loss of smell.

In a review of studies, researchers found impairment of taste or smell commonly occurred before other COVID-19 symptoms.

For a very small number of people, loss or change in taste may be long term.

The reason why COVID-19 can affect your taste isn’t entirely clear. But researchers have found that the epithelial cells in your mouth, including taste bud cells, contain receptors for the enzyme angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). The virus that causes COVID-19 can enter cells through these receptors.

Other symptoms of COVID-19 include cough, fever, and fatigue. Difficulty breathing or chest pain signals a medical emergency.

Even with no other symptoms, loss of taste can be indicative of COVID-19, so speak with 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.

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

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), change or loss of taste or smell is more common with COVID-19 than the flu.

Cold and flu symptoms are treated with:

Antibiotics don’t work for viral infections like a cold or 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 and sinus infections can cause inflammation and congestion, which affects smell and taste. Sinus infections are treated with:

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

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

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

In a 2018 study, researchers found that 28 percent of 68 people with chronic rhinosinusitis had taste loss. About 60 percent of the people in the study had chronic rhinosinusitis with polyps.

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

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

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

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

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

  • Eat 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 a temporary metallic taste.

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.

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

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

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.

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 with a doctor about loss of taste and any other symptoms you have. Determining and treating the cause may help you get your taste back.

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

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

Altered or lack of taste can be symptomatic of:

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

Other potential causes are:

  • smoking
  • drinking alcohol
  • burning your tongue

Your taste may improve 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 you create a plan that works.

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. If it persists long term, it can lead to under or overeating, malnutrition, and poorer quality of life.

Talk with 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 or grayish lips or face
  • any other concerning symptoms

Tell doctors and emergency responders in advance that you may have COVID-19 so they can take proper precautions. People with dark skin may not be able to recognize a change in skin color that suggests oxygen deprivation as easily as people with light skin

Diagnosis starts 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 a 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 underlying cause can often help get your taste buds back on track.

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