Maybe you woke up this morning and poured yourself your morning cup of coffee — and the brew kind of tasted like dirt. Or your peanut butter toast was extraordinarily bland. If food suddenly tastes different to you, you may be feeling pretty alarmed.
A loss of smell and taste are telling symptoms of COVID-19, and for that reason, doctors are on high alert when their patients tell them that food doesn't taste right anymore.
But COVID isn't the only culprit.
"Change in sense of taste can be due to a multitude of causes," Rachel Kaye, MD, assistant professor and chief of Laryngology-Voice, Airway and Swallowing Disorders at Rutgers University, tells LIVESTRONG.com.
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"One of the most common has to do with a change in the sense of smell, as this is closely related to taste," she says.
It's possible there's an underlying neurologic issue with the nerves that control the sense of taste or the brain's interpretation of taste, Dr. Kaye says.
These factors can reduce your sense of taste (called hypogeusia), take it away completely (ageusia) or cause foods and drink to taste different (called dysgeusia).
Here are eight possible explanations for a sudden change in taste. While these may help you understand the cause, it's important to check in with your doctor in order to be able to address and treat the problem.
1. You Ate or Drank Something Too Hot
It seems too simple to be true, but eating or drinking something hot may temporarily cause your sense of taste to get weird. "Local trauma" to the tastebuds — aka burning your tongue on hot stuff — can change your sense of taste.
"Thankfully, this is normally a temporary problem," Dr. Kaye says.
2. You Have a Cold or Allergies
Nasal congestion due to an infection from a virus, bacteria or allergies can make it tough to taste your dinner — and that might be one reason why you're feeling a little "meh" about food right now.
"When we get sick, the sense of smell goes, and that's related to the sense of taste," says Anthony Del Signore, MD, director of rhinology and endoscopic skull base surgery at Mount Sinai Union Square.
Once the virus clears your system or you receive allergy treatment, this congestion can subside — and you'll enjoy the taste of food again.
3. You Have a Nasal Polyp
So, the plot thickens if you have a cold or allergies that lead to sinusitis (a sinus infection), an inflammation of the nose and sinus cavities, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.
Sometimes, this can lead to nasal polyps, which are growths in the nasal cavities that are more likely to pop up in your 30s or 40s. (Don't worry: Most of the time, these are not harmful.) Polyps can obstruct your sense of smell, which can affect your ability to taste.
Nasal sprays and rinses or oral steroids can help shrink a polyp.
4. You're Taking a New-to-You Medication
If you're starting a new medication and notice a sudden change in taste, ask your doctor if it's a common side effect and how you can manage it.
5. You Have a Nutrient Deficiency
A deficiency in certain nutrients, like zinc, can distort your sense of taste, per a May 2016 scientific review in The Consultant Pharmacist.
Before you decide to add supplements to your routine, check in with your doctor first to make sure you do, in fact, have a deficiency and that supplementing is safe for you. Your doctor will also be able to help you determine the correct dosage.
6. You Have an Autoimmune Disorder
An autoimmune disease could be the source of your taste change. Sjögren's is an autoimmune disease that can cause extensive dryness, notes the Sjögren's Foundation. That includes drying out mucous membranes in the mouth, which affects tastebuds, Dr. Del Signore says. With reduced saliva flow, you may have a reduced sense of taste or a distorted taste (such as everything tastes metallic).
Along with a change of taste, other symptoms of the disease include dry eyes or a dry nose, dental decay, stomach upset and joint or muscle pain.
If your doctor suspects Sjögren's, he or she will refer you to a rheumatologist for an evaluation.
7. You Have a Neurologic Condition
"Any neurologic condition that affects the cranial nerves can affect taste," Dr. Kaye says.
She gives the example of Bell's palsy, which causes facial paralysis on one side of the face. "Bell's palsy can affect taste first before causing facial droop," she says.
There is no test to diagnose the condition, but your physician can do so with a physical exam.
8. You Have COVID-19
Today, a doctor's ears may perk up as soon as you tell them you suddenly lost your sense of smell or taste, and that's because this can be one of the initial symptoms of COVID-19. The virus seems to take a special liking to olfactory nerves of the nose, Dr. Del Signore says. And, adds Dr. Kaye, there have been cases of taste issues without a change in smell in COVID-19 patients.
If you're experiencing a loss of smell and/or taste, as well as other common COVID-19 symptoms, including fever, chills, cough, body aches, headache, a runny nose, vomiting or diarrhea, then your doctor will likely want you to get tested for COVID-19.
In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, a sudden change in taste alone, without any other common symptoms, may warrant getting swabbed.
"Patients lose their sense of smell for three to seven days, but we do have a fair amount who lose it longer. When it does return, some notice distortions in their sense of smell and taste that persist," Dr. Del Signore says.
Read more stories to help you navigate the novel coronavirus pandemic:
Is This an Emergency?
- American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology: “Nasal Polyp”
- Michigan Medicine: “Taste Changes”
- The Consultant Pharmacist: “Zinc and Taste Disturbances in Older Adults: A Review of the Literature”
- Harvard Health Blog: “Vitamin B12 deficiency can be sneaky, harmful”
- Sjögren’s Foundation: “Understanding sjörgren’s?”
- Sjögren’s Foundation: “Symptoms”