How smell and taste change as you age

Did you know that your sense of smell and taste are connected — and that as you age, these senses change? As you get older, you might find that certain foods aren’t as flavorful as they used to be, as that’s usually normal. However, changes in smell or taste can also be a sign of a larger problem, too. So it’s important to take note of any changes in your ability to smell or taste things.



Your sense of smell

Smell is an important sense. Certain smells, like a father’s cologne, can help you recall a memory. Other smells, like smoke from a fire, can alert you to danger. When you can’t smell things you enjoy, like your morning coffee or spring flowers, life could appear to be a little more dull than before.

As you get older, your sense of smell might fade. And, since the sense of smell is closely related to the sense of taste, when you can’t smell, food might taste bland. You could even lose interest in eating.

What causes a loss of smell?

Many problems cause a loss of smell that lasts for a short time. This temporary loss of smell may be due to:

  • A cold or flu that causes a stuffy nose. The ability to smell will come back when you’re better.
  • Allergies. Try to stay away from things you’re allergic to, like pollen and pets.
  • A harmless growth (called a polyp) in the nose or sinuses that gives you a runny nose. Having the growth removed may help.
  • Some medications, such as antibiotics or blood pressure medicine. Ask your doctor if there is another medicine you can take.
  • Radiation, chemotherapy, and other cancer treatments. Your sense of smell might return when treatment stops.

Some things can cause a long-lasting loss of smell. A head injury, for example, can damage the nerves related to smell.

Sometimes, losing your sense of smell may be a sign of a more serious disorder, such as Parkinson’s disease or Alzheimer’s disease. Be sure to tell your doctor about any change in your sense of smell.

Smells can keep you safe

It’s important to be aware of odors around you. You need to be able to smell:

  • Smoke—check your smoke detectors once a year to make sure they work.
  • Gas leaks—make sure you have a gas detector in your home.
  • Spoiled food—throw out food that’s been in the refrigerator too long.
  • Household chemicals—make sure there is fresh air where you live and work.

Your sense of taste

Your sense of taste comes from the tiny taste buds inside your mouth. They are on your tongue, in your throat, and even on the roof of your mouth. What we call “flavor” is based on five basic tastes we experience: sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and savory. Along with how it tastes, how food smells is also part of what makes up its flavor.

When food tastes bland, many people try to improve the flavor by adding more salt or sugar. This might not be healthy for older people, especially if you have medical problems like high blood pressure or diabetes (high blood sugar).

People who have lost some of their sense of taste may not eat the foods they need to stay healthy. This can lead to other issues such as:

  • Weight loss
  • Malnutrition (not getting the calories, protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals you need from the food)
  • Social isolation
  • Depression

Eating food that is good for you is important to your health. If you have a problem with how food tastes, be sure to talk with your doctor.

What causes a loss of taste?

Many things can cause you to lose your sense of taste. Most of the time there are ways to help with the problem.

Medications, like antibiotics and pills to lower cholesterol and blood pressure, can sometimes change how food tastes. Some medicines can make your mouth dry. Having a dry mouth can cause food to taste funny and also make it hard to swallow. Talk to your doctor if you think a medicine is affecting your sense of taste. There might be different medicines that you can try. But do not stop taking your medicine without first be advised by a doctor.

Gum disease, an infection in your mouth, or issues with your dentures can leave a bad taste in your mouth that changes the way food tastes. Brushing your teeth, flossing, and using mouthwash can help prevent these problems. Talk to your dentist if you have a bad taste in your mouth that won’t go away.

Alcohol can alter how food tastes. Cutting back or stopping drinking may help. Smoking can also reduce your sense of taste. Quitting might help.

Colors and spices can help make food more enjoyable

If you’re having trouble smelling and tasting your food, try adding color and texture to make your food more interesting. For example, try eating brightly colored vegetables like carrots, sweet potatoes, broccoli, and tomatoes. Also, if your diet allows, flavor your food with a little butter, olive oil, cheese, nuts, or fresh herbs like sage, thyme, or rosemary. To put some zing in your food, add mustard, hot pepper, onions, garlic, ginger, different spices, or lemon or lime juice.

Medical specialist for smell and taste: the otolaryngologist

If the foods you enjoy don’t smell or taste the way you think they should, talk to your doctor. He or she might suggest you see a specialist who treats people with smell and taste problems. This kind of doctor is called an otolaryngologist (oh-toh-lar-ing-gol-uh-jist), also known as an “ear, nose, and throat” doctor (ENT). An otolaryngologist works on problems related to the ear, nose, and throat, as well as the larynx (voice box), mouth, and parts of the neck and face. The doctor might ask:

  • Can you smell anything at all?
  • Can you taste any food?
  • When did you first notice the problem?
  • Is the problem getting worse?
  • Have you been told that you have allergies or chronic sinus problems?
  • What medicines do you take?

There are likely ways to help fix the problem. If not, the doctor can help you cope with the changes in smell and taste.


Information courtesy of the National Institute of Health’s National Institute on Aging.

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