Ear, Nose and Throat

What causes a loss of taste?

A lost sense of taste may refer to a partial or total loss of taste. People may also use this phrase to describe an overpowering and typically unpleasant taste.

Many medical issues may lead to a loss of taste. Some of these issues are harmless, while others may require a doctor to diagnose them. The type of treatment will depend on the underlying cause.

In this article, learn about the possible causes of a lost sense of taste and how doctors diagnose and treat the underlying problems.

Causes

young woman tasting from wooden spoon with lost sense of taste
A number of medical conditions can cause an unpleasant or lost sense of taste.

The most common taste disorder is phantom taste perception. A person with this disorder will have a strong, lingering taste in their mouth, even when it is empty.

The taste is often unpleasant and may overpower the taste of other foods while they eat. The taste may also occur alongside a persistent burning sensation in the mouth.

There are three types of phantom taste perception:

Ageusia

A complete loss of the sense of taste is called ageusia, which can make a person unable to detect any tastes.

However, ageusia is rare. The authors of a 2016 study estimate that only 3% of people who experience a loss of the sense of taste have true ageusia.

Dysgeusia

Dysgeusia causes a persistent taste in the mouth that can mask other tastes and make all foods taste the same.

People with dysgeusia often say that the taste has particular characteristics, describing it as:

  • foul
  • rancid
  • sour
  • salty
  • metallic

Hypogeusia

Hypogeusia is the term for a partial loss of one type of taste. A person with hypogeusia may be unable to detect one of the key tastes:

  • bitterness
  • sourness
  • saltiness
  • sweetness
  • umami, which is a pleasant, savory taste

The tongue is not the only sense organ that plays a role in taste. Taste is a more complex sense that involves the tongue, throat, roof of the mouth, and nose.

The sense of smell significantly affects how a person tastes food. Anosmia is the medical term for a loss of smell.

A person may have partial or total anosmia, which may cause them to think that they have lost their sense of taste.

Causes of taste disorders and a loss of taste include:

  • upper respiratory infections, such as the common cold
  • sinus infections
  • middle ear infections
  • poor oral hygiene and dental problems, such as gingivitis
  • exposure to some chemicals, such as insecticides
  • surgeries on the mouth, throat, nose, or ear
  • head injuries
  • radiation therapy for cancer in this area of the body

Causes of smell disorders include:

Some medications may also affect a person’s ability to taste. These drugs include:

  • antifungal medications
  • macrolides, which can treat some types of infection
  • fluoroquinolones, a type of antibiotic
  • proton pump inhibitors
  • angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors
  • protein kinase inhibitors
  • HMG-CoA reductase inhibitors (statins)

Diagnosis

female doctor examining male patients throat
A doctor will examine a person’s throat to look for signs of inflammation.

Taste disorders are not uncommon. More than 200,000 people in the United States visit the doctor each year complaining of difficulty tasting or smelling. Some experts estimate that up to 15% of adults may have taste or smell issues, even though many do not seek treatment.

Specialists called otolaryngologists can diagnose and treat both smell and taste disorders. These doctors specialize in disorders that affect the ear, nose, and throat, as well as conditions relating to the head and neck.

The doctor may look for growths in the mouth or nose, check a person’s breathing, and search for other signs of infection. They will also review a person’s medical history and ask about any drug use and possible exposure to toxic chemicals.

The doctor will also want to examine a person’s mouth and teeth to check for signs of disease and inflammation.

To help diagnose the loss of taste, the doctor might apply certain chemicals directly to the tongue or add them to a solution that the person then swishes in their mouth. A person’s response to these chemicals may help identify the affected aspect of taste.

It can take time to identify both the type of sensory loss that the person is experiencing and the underlying condition, but a correct diagnosis is an important step toward proper treatment.

Treatment

The underlying condition causing the lost sense of taste will determine the treatment options. In simple cases, such as those resulting from the common cold or flu, doctors will usually wait until the infection subsides. In most cases, the sense of taste should return once the illness goes away.

For people with bacterial infections, such as sinus or middle ear infections, doctors may recommend antibiotics.

Treatment for more serious issues, such as nervous system disorders or head injuries, will require an individualized treatment plan.

Home remedies

In many cases, a person can take small steps at home to help improve their sense of taste, including:

  • quitting smoking
  • improving dental hygiene by brushing, flossing, and using a medicated mouthwash daily
  • using over-the-counter antihistamines or vaporizers to reduce inflammation in the nose

Summary

Problems in the mouth, the nose, and even the ears may lead to a partial or full loss of the sense of taste. In many cases, the cause is temporary, such as an infection that inflames the nasal passages.

Treating the underlying condition should make the symptoms go away. Some underlying causes, such as chemical exposure, Alzheimer’s disease, and aging, may cause a permanent loss of taste.

It is essential to work closely with a doctor to identify and treat the underlying issue.

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