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A loss of ability to taste some or all tastes (sweet, bitter, sour, and salty) often occurs with normal aging. It affects at least a quarter of people who are older than 50 years old, and about 60% of those who are older than 80 years old. Although it is common, it is often under reported, because many people do not recognize it or just accept it as part of aging. However, to some people, it can be disturbing, because it can reduce the quality of life and can even lead to malnutrition and depression. Furthermore, in some people, a change in ability to perceive taste may be a symptom of another medical condition, which may need proper treatment.

Taste disorders may involve a partial loss of ability to taste one or more tastes, a total inability to taste, or a distorted sense of taste. Some individuals feel they cannot taste anything that is supposed to be sweet, while others feel that anything they eat is tasteless. A few people complain of experiencing a metallic taste in their mouth, or even a revolting taste that is not related to any food or drug taken.

The most common cause of decline in ability to taste is aging, which may be caused by factors such as a reduction in the number of sensory taste buds in the tongue or changes in the tongue itself, which make it harder for food flavors to penetrate into the taste buds. A reduction in production of saliva or an increase in the stickiness of the saliva can also reduce one's ability to taste. As people age, changes in the nervous system may also affect the way they process their sense of taste.

Aside from aging, there are other factors that can cause a temporary or long-lasting change in taste perception. An important factor in our ability to perceive flavors is our ability to smell odors, which has the strongest influence on the way we are able to taste. Therefore, anything that alters our sense of smell may also impact our sense of taste. Here are some possible reasons why people experience taste disorders:

  • having a dry mouth

  • having colds or flu, which causes clogging of nasal passages

  • cigarette smoking

  • injuries in the nose, mouth, or head

  • chronic sinusitis

  • surgery in the nose or mouth

  • developmental disorders involving obstruction of nasal passageways

  • poor oral hygiene

  • infections in the mouth, including tooth decay

  • alcohol intake

  • use of dentures

Certain medications can also change our sense of taste, including:

  • thyroid medications

  • captopril

  • lithium

  • griseofulvin

  • procarbazine

  • rifampin

  • penicillamine

  • vinblastine

  • vincristine

  • zinc nasal spray

  • aminoglycosides

Medical conditions that can affect our ability to taste include:

  • Neuropsychiatric disorders like depression, schizophrenia, and mood disorders

  • Degenerative conditions such as Alzheimer's disease and Parkinson's disease

  • Cancer

  • Post-gastric bypass surgery

  • Diabetes

  • Hormonal imbalance associated with pregnancy and menstrual cycles

  • AIDS

  • Chronic liver disease

  • Nutritional deficiencies associated with anorexia and malabsorption syndromes

When to See a Doctor

If you feel that you are experiencing a loss or change in taste perception that is not just due to colds, allergies, or temporary illness, try to find out what is causing your problem. It could be just a health habit that you need to improve, such as oral hygiene, or a smoking habit you need to quit. However, if you think your symptoms do not improve with simple remedies, it is best to consult a doctor for a more thorough evaluation of your health and get treatment if necessary.

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