One of the most common complaints during and after chemotherapy is that things just don't smell and taste the same. What we perceive as taste is intimately linked with our sense of smell, and in most cases it's really disturbances in olfactory function that are the problem after chemo. However, our sense of smell isn't just something in our noses. It's also something in our brains.
A lot of the most often-recommended natural remedies for restoration of sense of smell after chemotherapy just don't work.
- High-dose zinc therapy (50 mg twice a day, which is a dose large enough to cause copper deficiencies) has been recommended as a treatment for loss of olfaction for decades, but when it was finally tested in a clinical trial at the University of Virginia, zinc supplements were found to make sense of smell worse after chemo. A study of the nasal spray Zicam even found that some people lost their sense of smell permanently, without chemotherapy, due to overexposure to zinc.
- Marijuana is frequently recommended to cancer patients to stabilize nausea and vomiting. It does, according the results of the only clinical trial of its use, hold any benefit for restoring sense of smell.
- High-dose vitamin D therapy, 10 thousand IU per day, is also sometimes recommended for restoring sense of smell after chemotherapy. This may actually work if there is a vitamin D deficiency, and due to the disruption of lifestyle caused by cancer treatment, there often is. However, it usually only restores the ability to detect extremely strong smells.
- There really are kinds of chemotherapy that make patients smell bad not just to themselves but also to other people. Just about anything that contains a heavy metal (Platinol, for example), will change body odor to more metallic. The odor change lasts for several weeks after the end of treatment, but goes away when skin cells have a chance to renew themselves. This takes longer if you are on a second chemotherapy that inhibits cell division, such as methotrexate.
- There are treatments often given with chemotherapy that make patients smell bad to themselves and other people. The antibiotic vancomycin, given to stop infections that arise when white blood cell counts fall, generates a putrid sulfurous smell in urine. Any spillage becomes highly odorous. Iron supplements given to counteract anemia don't just build up red blood cells, they also feed odor-causing bacteria on the skin. As long as you are taking iron, you will tend to have very healthy underarm bacteria.
- Stinky foods can also have an unusually potent effect in people who are on chemotherapy. Ordinarily the liver quickly breaks down the sulfur compounds in onions, garlic, broccoli, cabbage, and stinky cheese. When the liver is busy detoxifying chemotherapy drugs, however, odors from food can accumulate and linger in sweat and urine. People who ordinarily don't get a garlicky smell may have a persistent food odor that lingers almost as long as they are taking chemotherapy.
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