Loss of taste and smell has never been discussed more than recently thanks to the pandemic. However, taste and smell problems plagued people long before the rise of the Covid-19 virus.
Discover what can cause changes in taste and smell and how to best manage it while staying sane.
How Taste and Smell Work
It is important to understand how closely taste and smell work together. Taste is a complex sense that involves the tongue, throat, roof of the mouth, and nose. In fact, the sense of smell significantly affects how a person experiences the taste of food and drinks.
Both smell and taste rely on chemoreception to sense environmental input. Taste occurs via bundles of taste cells clumped together to form taste buds. Located in papillae across the tongue, they specifically sense five main flavors - salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and umami. These taste bud receptors are activated when one of the five stimuli is present to send signals to the brain.
Similarly, receptors within the nose coordinate with the activation of taste receptors to help distinguish specific tastes. Even though humans frequently perceive taste and smell as different senses, they work synergistically together to create the perception of flavor, and problems with one often affect the other.
Causes of Taste and Smell Changes
Changes in taste and smell can be confusing, frustrating, and even affect one's quality of life. When people talk about the loss of taste and smell, they could be referring to partial or complete losses. They could also be describing a typically unpleasant, overwhelming taste change.
Types of Taste Changes
Ageusia refers to a complete loss of taste, which means a person cannot detect any sense of taste.
On the other hand, dysgeusia refers to a persistent taste in the mouth that may mask all other flavors and cause all food to taste similarly. Typically, it causes an unpleasant taste such as foul, rancid, sour, or metallic tastes.
Finally, hypogeusia describes a partial loss of one type of taste (bitterness, sourness, sweetness, saltiness, or umami). Some people can only detect one taste, while others may continue to taste four of the flavors but not the fifth. Anything in between is equally possible!
Causes of Taste and Smell Loss
Many medical conditions can lead to taste and smell changes and treatment often depends on the underlying root cause. However, no matter the root cause, the underlying mechanism involves disruption and/or inflammation of the taste bud and olfactory (nose/smell) receptors within the mouth, throat, and nose. This can be caused by mucus buildup or erasure of receptors among others.
The most common causes of this include:
• Upper respiratory infections like the common cold
• Viral infections like Covid-19
• Ear infections
• Poor oral hygiene and dental problems like gingivitis
• Exposure to toxic chemicals or insecticides
• Surgeries on the mouth, throat, nose, or sometimes ear
• Head injuries
• Radiation or other cancer therapy
• Old age
• Smoking and related problems
• Growths in the nasal cavity
• Conditions that affect the nervous system
• Medications like antifungals, statins, and many more
Yet, there is another cause of taste and smell changes that is rarely discussed. In one investigation, people with IBS and functional constipation (FC) reported diminished food satisfaction and alterations in their perception of smell and taste.
Researchers believe the changes are connected to the severity of their lower gastrointestinal symptoms, with more severe symptoms causing worse taste and smell changes. Although the specific mechanism of these changes is not fully understood yet, the research revealed a reduced ability to taste salty, sweet, and sour foods and an increased perception of bitter foods.
Nonetheless, many of the participants exclaimed that these taste and smell abnormalities reduced their quality of life and increased anxious and sad feelings. This sheds light on the inextricable link between food, pleasure, and emotions.
So what can be done if taste and smell changes strike?
How to Handle Taste and Smell Changes
In most cases, taste and smell alterations are not permanent and will subside when the underlying cause improves. This is typically the case with viruses and other medical conditions. However, some root causes like radiation therapy, the removal of nasal masses, or old age can cause permanent losses.
First off, it is important to acknowledge the emotional impact that taste and smell changes can exert. Food is a large part of our culture and not being able to taste delicious flavors can feel like missing out on love and pleasure.
It can be helpful to remember that while food certainly provides a delectable taste, it also serves as fuel and nourishment. Also, remember that food has multiple functions in an effort to ease the distress of taste and smell losses.
In addition to treating the root cause of ailment, other simple steps include quitting smoking and improving dental hygiene. Using over-the-counter antihistamines to reduce inflammation might help as well.
Still, other natural remedies to augment taste include:
• Determine the most acceptable flavor and eat mostly those foods
• Add plenty of spices to foods if tolerated
• Drink plenty of water, especially if an unpleasant taste is present
• Consume ginger tea or ginger ale
• Periodically suck on lozenges or mints
• Eat bland foods like potatoes, bread, and rice if poor taste is present
• Determine the most desirable temperature of food
• Consume mostly whole foods to speed recovery
The Bottom Line
Taste and smell utilize chemoreceptors to detect their sensations and work synergistically together to produce the perception of different flavors.
However, certain conditions like viruses, radiation treatment, or medications can cause temporary or permanent changes in taste and smell. This can negatively impact one's quality of life, as food is often equated with love and is such a huge part of culture and traditions.
Time is honestly the best treatment for overcoming the loss of taste and smell. But addressing the root cause, enjoying selected tolerable foods, and eating a whole foods-based diet may ease some distress.
Boundless Biology. Lumen. https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-biology/chapter/taste-and-smell/.
Johnson J. Lost Sense of Taste: Causes and When to See a Doctor. Medical News Today. Written May 24, 2019. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/325281#summary.
MD Editorial Team. Taste and Smell Abnormalities along with Psychological Changes Associated with IBS. Medical Dialogues. Updated October 7, 2021. https://medicaldialogues.in/gastroenterology/news/taste-and-smell-abnormalities-along-with-psychological-changes-associated-with-ibs-82897?infinitescroll=1.