Am I Losing My Sense of Taste?

Taste Sense
Taste Sense. JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

Sense of Taste

Your sense of taste is related to combination of 2 different specialized cells, olfactory and gustatory. Olfactory cells are specialized cells that are high up in your nose that are connected to nerves that communicate with your brain. The second specialized cell, gustatory, are clustered in your mouth (particularly your tongue) and in your throat. As you smell and chew your food, aroma is generated which activates your smell senses, while the food mixed with saliva activates your taste senses.

Myth: Different taste buds are clustered in certain sections of the tongue.

Truth: While there are different taste buds that respond differently to the foods you eat, they are not clustered in separate areas of the tongue. In fact all the taste buds will react to all the different tastes, but in varying degrees. There are 5 different taste buds that are scattered throughout your mouth, roof of the mouth and throat that contribute the overall taste of the food you eat:

  • sweet
  • sour
  • bitter
  • salty
  • umami (savory - associated with chicken broth, chinese food, meats, and cheeses)

When you consider the 5 tastes with varying degrees of intensity based on the taste buds they hit, as well as the combination of your other senses including smell, and touch (consistency and temperature), the experience of taste can vary greatly. No wonder so many people enjoy eating. Have you ever had a cold, or felt congested and thought that the food you love tastes different?

That change in taste is related to your loss of smell, not just because you aren't feeling well. 

How Common is Losing Your Sense of Taste?

Most people who visit their doctor regarding loss of their sensation of taste actually end up with an issue with their sense of smell. Every year, there are about 200,000 doctor visits with complaints of a loss of taste.

However, it is estimated that while not everyone seeks medical attention when they lose their sense of taste, about 15 out of 100 adults experience problems with this sense. 

Causes of Losing Sense of Taste

The most common complaint related to taste is phantom taste perception or phantogeusia. This is a sensation of a metallic or bitter taste in your mouth while there is not actually any food or scent to generate this sensation. The 4 types of taste disorders can be categorized into:

  • phantogeusia - phantom taste perception
  • hypogeusia - decreased sensation of taste
  • dysgeusia - confusing the different tastes
  • ageusia - complete loss of taste (rare)

​Conditions that affect your sense of taste include:

  • medications (some antibiotics, antihistamines, Zicam)
  • nerve or brain disorders (stroke, traumatic brain injury, brain tumors)
  • autoimmune diseases
  • age - you are born with about 10,000 taste buds that operate optimally around the 30 - 60 years of age. Your senses will gradually decline around the age of 50 or 60
  • strep throat, sinus problems, or nasal polyps
  • smoking
  • exposure to harmful chemicals (insecticides)
  • dental problems - ill-fitting dentures which cause sores, infections, inflammation
  • radiation to the head or neck (for cancer treatment)
  • allergies
  • hormone imbalances
  • vitamin deficiency (rare)

Why Should I Seek Medical Attention?

Our senses of smell and taste are important for our nutritional status and individuals who lose these senses often lose weight. Our sense of smell can also warn us of danger - smoke from a fire, chemicals, a natural gas leak. Diagnosing problems with taste or smell is generally uncomplicated. You should see an otolaryngologist (ENT). This doctor, who specializes in disorders of the ear, nose and mouth, will probably have you try to identify certain chemical odors using a standard "scratch and sniff" test, and/or flavors (a taste test).

Can Taste Loss Be Treated?

Sometimes losing your sense of taste (or smell) is only temporary but sometimes it is permanent. For example, nasal polyps can be removed surgically but lost cells due to the normal aging process cannot be replaced.

Permanent Loss:

  • severe infections (like those that lead to Bell's palsy)
  • stroke or head injury (most likely permanent)
  • chemical exposure or radiation

Treatable Loss:

  • acute infections like strep throat after resolution
  • allergies can be treated with antihistamines
  • smoking can reverse if you quit smoking

If you are taking medications that cause dry mouth they can affect the way you taste food. This is because saliva contains important chemical messengers that are necessary for the brain to interpret tastes. In this case you can talk to your doctor about changing to another medication or ways to cope with dry mouth, such as chewing sugar free gum and drinking a lot of water. 

It is important to seek resolution of loss of taste if possible due to the nutritional and social aspects involved in taste. Malnutrition and depression can result from prolonged or untreated loss of taste. If the loss of taste is permanent, it is important to work with your medical team to minimize your nutritional or depression risks.


American Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck Surgery. Smell and Taste. Accessed: January 11, 2016 from

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Taste Disorders. Accessed: January 11, 2016 from

Su, N., Ching, V. & Grushka, M. (2015). Taste Disorder: A Review. Accessed: January 11, 2016 from

Continue Reading