Problems with Taste

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Symptoms Vary With Disorders

There are several types of taste disorders depending on how the sense of taste is affected. People who have taste disorders usually lose their ability to taste or can no longer perceive taste in the same way. True taste disorders are rare. Most changes in the perception of food flavor result from the loss of smell.

Phantom Taste Perception. The most common taste complaint is "phantom taste perception" -- tasting something when nothing is in the mouth.

Hypogeusia. Some people have hypogeusia, or the reduced ability to taste sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and savory, or umami. This disorder is usually temporary.

Dysgeusia. Dysgeusia is a condition in which a foul, salty, rancid, or metallic taste sensation will persist in the mouth. Dysgeusia is sometimes accompanied by burning mouth syndrome, a condition in which a person experiences a painful burning sensation in the mouth. Although it can affect anyone, burning mouth syndrome is most common in middle-aged and older women.

Ageusia. Other people can't detect taste at all, which is called ageusia. This type of taste disorder can be caused by head trauma; some surgical procedures, such as middle ear surgery or extraction of the third molar; radiation therapy; and viral infections.

Why a Diagnosis Is Important

If you think you have a taste disorder, see your doctor. Loss of the sense of taste can lead to depression and a reduced desire to eat. Loss of appetite can lead to loss of weight, poor nutrition and weakened immunity. In some cases, loss of taste can accompany or signal conditions such as diabetes. Sometimes, a problem with taste can be a sign of a disease of the nervous system, such multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer's disease, or Parkinson’s disease.

Do You Have a Taste Disorder?

If you think you have a taste disorder, try to identify and record the circumstances surrounding it. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • When did I first become aware of it?
  • What changes in my taste do I notice?
  • Do all foods and drinks taste the same?
  • Have there been any changes in my sense of smell?
  • Does the change in taste affect my ability to eat normally?
  • What medications do I take? What are the names of the medications? How much do I take? What is the health condition for which I take them?
  • Have I recently had a cold or the flu?

Talking With Your Doctor

Bring this information with you when you visit the doctor. He or she may refer you to an otolaryngologist, a specialist in diseases of the ear, nose, and throat. An accurate assessment of your taste loss will include, among other things

  • a physical examination of your ears, nose, and throat
  • a dental examination and assessment of oral hygiene
  • a review of your health history
  • a taste test supervised by a health care professional.

Tests for Taste Disorders

Some tests are designed to measure the lowest concentration of a substance that a person can detect or recognize. Your doctor may ask you to compare the tastes of different substances or to note how the intensity of a taste grows when a substance's concentration is increased.

Scientists have developed taste tests in which the patient responds to different concentrations of a substance. This may involve a simple "sip, spit, and rinse" test or the application of a substance directly to your tongue using an eye dropper. By using these tests, your doctor can determine if you have a true taste disorder and what type it is.

If your doctor suspects that nerves in your mouth or head may be affected, he or she may order an X-ray, usually a CAT scan, to look further into the head and neck area.

Once the cause of a taste disorder is found, your doctor may be able to treat it. Many types of taste disorders are reversible, but if not, counseling and self-help techniques may help you cope.