Taste changes and loss of appetite

Cancer treatment can cause taste changes and a loss of appetite.

Taste changes

Food and drink can taste peculiar when you have some cancer treatments. Cancer drugs that might cause taste changes include some:

  • chemotherapy drugs
  • targeted cancer drugs
  • other drugs such as anti sickness medicines

Radiotherapy to the mouth may have a permanent effect on your sense of taste. This may improve slowly over time.

Radiotherapy for some types of head and neck cancer can also affect the glands that produce spit (saliva). These are called salivary glands. This can cause a dry mouth (xerostomia) and taste changes.

Some chemotherapy drugs cause taste changes by affecting the spit in the mouth directly.

You might go off certain foods because they taste different from how they usually do. Some people find that they start preferring spicy food. You might lose weight when having taste changes as it can affect your appetite.

Treatments that affect your sense of smell can also change your sense of taste. The scent of food adds a great deal to how it tastes.

Loss of appetite (anorexia)

Doctors call a loss of appetite anorexia. This is very different from the psychiatric condition anorexia nervosa.

Anorexia is common in people with cancer. It can happen in the early stages of cancer or much later if it grows and spreads to other parts of your body.

As many as 50 in 100 people diagnosed with cancer (50%) have loss of appetite. For people with advanced cancer, up to 60 in 100 people (60%) lose their appetite to some extent.

Changes to your appetite can be distressing to you and your family and friends. Eating is a social and enjoyable activity, and you or they might feel upset if you don’t feel like taking part. 

You can lose your appetite for a variety of reasons when you are having cancer treatment.

The side effects of the following drugs can put you off your food and drink:

  • chemotherapy
  • targeted cancer drugs
  • immunotherapy
  • painkillers

Cancer itself and certain chemicals that it releases can also cause a change to your appetite.

Fatigue, pain and depression can cause a lack of energy. So you might not have the motivation to eat.

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    A Shruthi and others

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Last reviewed: 
11 Mar 2020
Next review due: 
10 Mar 2023