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. It can also be a symptom of advanced cancer.

Cancer treatments that might cause taste changes include some:

  • chemotherapy drugs
  • targeted cancer drugs
  • immunotherapy drugs
  • other drugs such as anti sickness medicines
  • radiotherapy treatments

Radiotherapy to the mouth may have an affect on your sense of taste. This may be permanent or it could improve over time.

Some chemotherapy drugs cause taste changes by affecting the spit in the mouth directly. These changes can last up to a few months after the end of your treatment.

Cancer treatment can affect your sense of taste in different ways. This can include:

  • a constant metallic or chemical taste taste in your mouth 
  • foods tasting less salty or sweet than usual
  • foods tasting much stronger than usual
  • dry mouth (xerostomia)
  • a change in your sense of smell

You might lose your appetite or go off certain foods because they taste different from how they usually do. These changes could cause you to lose weight.

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

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.

You can also 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

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

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. 

Coping with taste changes and loss of appetite

There are ways to deal with diet problems like taste changes, dry mouth and loss of appetite.

  • A matter of taste
    M Donald
    British Journal of Nursing, 2022. Volume 31. Pages S10-S14

  • ESMO Handbook of Nutrition and Cancer (2nd edition) 
    A Jatoi, S Kaasa and M Strijbos
    ESMO Press, 2023

  • ESPEN expert group recommendations for action against cancer related malnutrition
    J Arends and others
    Clinical Nutrition, 2017. Volume 36. Pages 1187-1196

  • ESPEN guidelines on nutrition in cancer patients
    J Arends and others
    Clinical Nutrition, 2017. Volume 36. Pages 11-48

  • The information on this page is based on literature searches and specialist checking. We used many references and there are too many to list here. If you need additional references for this information please contact patientinformation@cancer.org.uk with details of the particular issue you are interested in.

Last reviewed: 
13 Sep 2023
Next review due: 
14 Sep 2026

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