Restoring Taste After Radiation Therapy to the Face and Neck

Published on October 21, 2023

Updated on November 4, 2023

Radiation therapy is a common treatment for head and neck cancers, but it can lead to the loss of , also known as , in some patients. This can be a distressing side effect, but there are steps that patients and caregivers can take to help restore the patient's sense of as quickly as possible, with minimal risk. While there is no guaranteed way to restore taste, these tips and strategies may help patients regain some of their enjoyment of food and drink.

Understanding the Loss of Taste

Radiation therapy can damage the taste buds, causing a temporary or permanent loss of taste. The severity and duration of this side effect can vary from person to person. In some cases, taste may return to normal within a few weeks or months after treatment, while in others, it may take longer or never fully recover.

Tips for Patients and Caregivers

Here are some steps that patients and caregivers can take to help restore the patient's sense of taste as quickly as possible, with minimal risk:

  1. Maintain good oral hygiene: Brushing the teeth and tongue, flossing, and using mouthwash can help remove any lingering tastes and odors that may be affecting the patient's ability to taste.
  2. Stay hydrated: Drinking plenty of water can help keep the mouth moist and may improve the patient's ability to taste.
  3. Avoid strong flavors and odors: Some patients find that strong flavors and odors, such as those from spicy foods, coffee, or alcohol, can be overwhelming or unpleasant. It may be helpful to avoid these types of foods and drinks until the patient's sense of taste returns.
  4. Experiment with different textures: Even if the patient can't taste flavors, they may still be able to enjoy different textures. Trying foods with a variety of textures, such as crunchy, smooth, or creamy, may help make mealtimes more enjoyable.
  5. Add flavor to foods: While the patient's sense of taste may be diminished, they may still be able to detect some flavors. Adding herbs, spices, or other seasonings to foods can help make them more flavorful and enjoyable.
  6. Eat small, frequent meals: Some patients find that eating smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day can help prevent them from becoming too full or too hungry, which can make mealtimes more enjoyable.
  7. Seek support: Joining a support group or talking to other patients who have experienced a loss of taste can be helpful. They may be able to offer tips and strategies for coping with this side effect.

Dietary Changes that can Help Restore Taste

  1. Try tart or sour flavors: Tart or sour flavors may stimulate saliva production, which can help improve taste. Rinse your mouth with fruit juice, wine, tea, ginger ale, club soda, or salted water before eating to help clear your taste buds.
  2. Add fresh herbs, mild spices, and a pinch of salt: If food tastes bland, try adding fresh herbs, mild spices, a pinch of salt, or a few drops of maple syrup to enhance the flavors.
  3. Eat foods with a variety of textures and consistencies: Early in radiation treatment, most patients can eat regular food. If you can tolerate doing so, eat foods with a variety of textures and consistencies to help maintain the strength of your swallowing muscles.
  4. Avoid sour or tart foods: If you are experiencing bitter or sour tastes, avoid sour or tart foods. Instead, try adding a little honey, sugar, or other sweetener to your foods to help balance the flavors.
  5. Experiment with new foods and flavors: Try new foods or cuisines that you may not have tried before. This can help to stimulate your taste buds and make eating more enjoyable.
  6. Consider taking zinc sulfate supplements: Talk to your doctor before taking any dietary supplements, especially during active cancer treatment, but zinc sulfate supplements may improve taste for some people.
  7. Eat cold or room temperature foods: If foods taste or smell unappealing, try eating them cold or at room temperature.
  8. Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water throughout the day to help maintain a healthy mouth and support overall well-being.
  9. Be patient: Taste changes caused by radiation treatment usually start to improve 3 weeks to 2 months after treatment ends and may continue to improve for about a year. However, some people may find that their sense of taste is permanently decreased, especially after surgery or radiation therapy.

Here are some foods to avoid

  • Spicy foods: Spicy foods can further irritate the mouth and throat, which may already be sore from radiation therapy.
  • Excess salt: Too much salt can contribute to dehydration, which can worsen dry mouth and other side effects.
  • Refined sugars: Refined sugars can be hard on the digestive system and may contribute to inflammation.
  • Unsaturated fats: While healthy fats are important, it is best to avoid excessive consumption of unsaturated fats, which can be harder to digest.
  • Excess alcohol: Alcohol can irritate the mouth and throat and may also contribute to dehydration.
  • Mint: Mint can have a numbing effect on the mouth and throat, which can make swallowing more difficult.
  • Soybean paste, soy protein isolate, and tofu: These soy products may interfere with the effectiveness of radiation treatment.

Supplements That May Help Restore Taste

  1. Zinc sulfate: Some studies have shown that zinc sulfate supplements may help some patients recover their sense of taste.
  2. Alpha-lipoic acid: Alpha-lipoic acid is an antioxidant that has been studied for its potential to improve taste function in patients undergoing radiation therapy.
  3. Glutamine: Glutamine is an amino acid that has been studied for its potential to improve taste function in patients undergoing radiation therapy.
  4. Omega-3 fatty acids: These may help improve taste and smell in some patients.
  5. Vitamin E: Some studies have shown that vitamin E supplements may help improve taste and smell in cancer patients.
  6. Probiotics: These may help improve taste and smell in some patients.
  7. Lactoferrin: May be a potential treatment for taste and smell abnormalities among patients receiving cancer chemotherapy.

How Long Does It Take to Regain Taste

The time it takes to regain taste after face and neck radiation treatment can vary from person to person. Here are some general timelines:

  • 4-5 weeks: Some patients may start to recover their taste as early as 4-5 weeks after completing radiotherapy.
  • 6-12 months: Around 6-12 months after completing radiotherapy, a significant recovery in taste function can be expected.
  • 1-4 months: Most patients may experience taste recovery within 1-4 months after radiotherapy, according to some studies.
  • Several months: It may take several months for the sense of taste to return to normal, depending on the individual and the specific treatment received.
  • Permanent changes: In some cases, taste changes may be permanent, especially if the salivary glands are damaged due to radiation therapy or surgery to the head and neck area.

It is important to note that these timelines are approximate, and individual experiences may vary. Patience and proper nutrition are crucial during the recovery process.

Conclusion

Restoring taste after radiation therapy to the face and neck is a journey that requires patience, adjustments to dietary habits, and sometimes, the use of supplements. The loss of taste can be a challenging side effect of treatment, but with the right approach, patients can improve their sense of taste and regain some enjoyment of food. Proper oral hygiene, dietary modifications, and the consideration of supplements like zinc sulfate or alpha-lipoic acid can all play a role in this journey. Additionally, support groups and talking to others who have experienced similar taste changes can provide valuable insights and encouragement.

Resources

Nutrition Tips for Patients Receiving Head and Neck Radiation Therapy

Preventive effects of zinc sulfate on taste alterations in patients under irradiation for head and neck cancers: A randomized placebo-controlled trial

Lactoferrin supplementation for taste and smell abnormalities among patients receiving cancer chemotherapy

Managing taste changes during cancer treatment

Nutrition during radiation therapy treatment: What patients should know

How long before my taste buds recover after H&N treatments?

Radiation-Related Alterations of Taste Function in Patients With Head and Neck Cancer: a Systematic Review

The effect of radiotherapy on taste sensation in head and neck cancer patients – a prospective study

Alteration in Taste Perception in Cancer: Causes and Strategies of Treatment

The impact of treatment-induced dysgeusia on the nutritional status of cancer patients

The Importance of Caregiver Journaling

Reporting Changes of Condition to Hospice

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